This explains why Azrael, Angel of Death, and Gabriel, Adam’s First Servant and Courier of the Thrones, were talking with the Prince of Darkness in the office of the Archangel of the English, who—Heaven knows—is more English than his people.
Two Guardian Spirits had been reported to the Archangel for allowing their respective charges to meet against Orders. The affair involved Gabriel, as official head of all Guardian Spirits, and also Satan, since Guardian Spirits are exhuman souls, reconditioned for re-issue by the Lower Hierarchy. There was a doubt, too, whether the Orders which the couple had disobeyed were absolute or conditional. And, further, Ruya’il, the female spirit, had refused to tell the Archangel of the English what the woman in her charge had said or thought when she met the man, for whom Kalka’il, the male Guardian Spirit, was responsible. Kalka’il had been equally obstinate; both Spirits sheltering themselves behind the old Ruling:—‘Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?’ The Archangel of the English, ever anxious to be just, had therefore invited Azrael, who separates the Spirit from the Flesh, to assist at the inquiry.
The four Powers were going over the case in detail.
‘I am afraid,’ said Gabriel at last, ‘no Guardian Spirit is obliged to—er—give away, as your people say, his or her charge. But’—he turned towards the Angel of Death—‘what’s your view of the Ruling?’
‘“Ecclesiastes, Three, Twenty-one,”’ Satan prompted.
‘Thank you so much. I should say that it depends on the interpretation of “Who,”’ Azrael answered. ‘And it is certainly laid down that Whoever Who may be’—his halo paled as he bowed his head—‘it is not any member of either Hierarchy.’
‘So I have always understood,’ said Satan.
‘To my mind’—the Archangel of the English spoke fretfully—‘this lack of—er—loyalty in the rank and file of the G.S. comes from our pernicious system of employing reconditioned souls on such delicate duties.’
The shaft was to Satan’s address, who smiled in acknowledgment.
‘They have some human weaknesses, of course,’ he returned. ‘By the way, where on earth were that man and the woman allowed to meet?’
‘Under the Clock at —— Terminus, I understand.’
‘How interesting! ’By appointment?’
‘Not at all. Ruya’il says that her woman stopped to look for her ticket in her bag. Kalka’il says that his man bumped into her. Pure accident, but a breach of Orders—trivial, in my judgment, for——’
‘Was it a breach of Orders for Life?’ Azrael asked.
He referred to that sentence, written on the frontal sutures of the skull of every three-year-old child, which is supposed, by the less progressive Departments, to foreshadow his or her destiny.
‘As a matter of detail,’ said the Archangel, ‘there were Orders for Life—identical in both cases. Here’s the copy. But nowadays we rely on training and environment to counteract this sort of auto-suggestion.’
‘Let’s make sure,’ Satan picked up the typed slip, and read aloud:—‘“If So-and-so shall meet So-and-So, their state at the last shall be such as even Evil itself shall pity.” H’m! That’s not absolutely prohibitive. It’s conditional—isn’t it? ’There’s great virtue in your “if,” and’—he muttered to himself—‘it will all come back to me.’
‘Nonsense!’ the Archangel replied. ‘I intend that man and that woman for far better things. Orders for Life nowadays are no more than Oriental flourishes—aren’t they?’
But the level-browed Gabriel, in whose department these trifles lie, was not to be drawn.
‘I hope you’re right,’ Satan said after a pause. ‘So you intend that couple for better things?’
‘Yes!’ the Archangel of the English cleared his throat ominously. ‘Rightly or wrongly, I’m an optimist. I do believe in the general upward trend of life. It connotes, of course, a certain restlessness among my people—the English, you know.’
‘The English I know,’ said Satan.
‘But in my humble judgment, they are developing on new planes. They must be met and guided by new methods. Surely in your dealings with the—er—more temperamental among them, you must have noticed this new sense of a larger outlook.’
‘In a measure—ye-es,’ Satan replied. ‘But I remember much the same sort of thing after printing was invented. Your people used to come down to me then, reeking—positively Caxtonised—with words. Some of ’em were convinced they had invented new sins. We-ell! Boiled and peeled (we had to do a little of that, of course) their novelties were only variations on the Imperfect Octave—Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, Covetousness, Lust. Technique, I grant you. Originality, nil. You may find it so with this new Zeitgeist of theirs.’
‘Ah, but you’re such a pessimist,’ the Archangel retorted, smiling. ‘I do wish you could meet these two I have in my eye. Charmin’ people. Cultured, capable, devout, of the happiest influences on their respective entourages; practical, earnest, and—er—so forth—they will each, in their spheres, supply just that touch which My People need at the present moment for their development. Therefore, I am giving them each full advantages for self-expression and realisation. These will include impeccable surroundings, wealth, culture, health, felicity (unhappy people can’t make other people happy, can they?), and—everything else commensurate with the greatness of the destiny for which I—er—destine them.’
The Archangel of the English rubbed his soft hands and beamed on his colleagues.
‘I hope you’re justified,’ said Satan. ‘But are you quite sure that your method of—may I call it cosseting people, gets the best out of them?’
‘’Rather what I was thinking,’ said Azrael. ‘I’ve seen wonderful work done—with My Sword practically at people’s throats—even when I’ve had to haggle a bit. They’re a hard lot sometimes.’
‘Let’s take Job’s case.’ Satan continued. ‘He didn’t reach the top of his form, as your people say, till I had handled him a little—did he?’
‘Possibly not—by the standards of his age. But nowadays we don’t give very high marks to the Man of Uz. Qua Literature, rhetorical, Qua Theology, anthropomorphic and unobserved. No-o, you can’t get away from the fact that new standards demand new methods, new outlooks, and above all, enlarged acceptances—yes, enlarged acceptances. That reminds me’—the Archangel of the English addressed himself to Azrael ‘I’ve sent in—perhaps it hasn’t come up to you yet—a Demi-Official asking if you can’t see your way towards mitigating some of your Departmental methods, so far as those affect your—er—final despatch-work. My people’s standards of comfort have risen, you know; and they’re complaining of the—the crudity of certain vital phenomena which lie within your provenance.’
For one instant Azrael lifted his eyes full on the hopeful countenance of the Archangel of the English, but no muscle twitched round his mouth as he replied:—‘Death is a little crude. For that matter, so’s Birth; but the two seem, somehow, to hang together. What would you say to an Inter-Departmental Committee——’
‘Or Commission—that gives ampler powers—to explore all possible avenues with a view to practical co-ordination? The very thing,’ the Archangel ran on. ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve had the terms of reference for such a conference drafted in the Office. I’ll run through ’em with you—if you can spare a few minutes.’
‘’Nothing I should like better,’ Satan cried whole-heartedly. ‘Unluckily, I’m not always master of my time.’ He rose. The others followed his example and, due leave taken, launched into the Void that lay flush with the Office windows.
‘And he objects to my methods!’ Azrael muttered. ‘If he weren’t immortal—unfortunately—I—I could show him something.’
The notion set them laughing so much that the Ruler of an Unconditioned Galaxy hailed them from his throne; and to Satan’s half-barked ‘No!—No!’—sign that they were Powers in flight and not halting—returned a courteous ‘On You be the Blessing.’
‘He has left out “and the Peace,”’ said Azrael critically.
‘There is no need. They’ve never conceived of Your existence in these parts,’ Gabriel explained, as one free of all the Creations.
‘Really?’ Azreal seemed a little dashed. ‘Our young English friend ought to apply for a transfer here. I fancy I should have to follow him before long.’
‘Oh no,’ Gabriel chuckled. ‘He’d eliminate you by training and environment. You’re only an Oriental flourish—like Orders for Life to a soul. D’you suppose there’s no one in his Office who knows what Kismet means?’
‘I should say not—from the quality of the stuff he sends down to us,’ Satan complained. ‘Did you notice his dig at me about “our pernicious system” of Guardian Spirits? I do my best to recondition his damned souls for reissue, but——’
‘You do it very thoroughly indeed,’ said Gabriel. ‘I’ve said as much in my last Report on Our Personnel.’
‘Thank you. It’s heavier work than you’d imagine. If you’re free for a little, I’d like to show you how heavy——’
‘You’re sure it wouldn’t——?’ Gabriel began politely.
‘Not in the least. Come along, then! . . . Take Space! Drop Time! Forgive my going first. . . . Now!’
The Three nose-dived at that point where Infinity returns upon itself, till they folded their wings beneath the foundations of Time and Space, whose double weight bore down on them through the absolute Zeroes of Night and Silence.
Gabriel breathed uneasily; for, the greater the glory, the more present the imperfections.
‘It’s the pressures,’ Satan reassured him. ‘We came down too quickly. Swallow a little and they’ll go off. Meantime, we’ll have some light on our subjects.’
The glare of the halo he wore in His Own Place fought against the Horror of Great Darkness.
‘Have we gone beyond The Mercy?’ Azrael whispered, appalled at the little light it won.
‘They’re delivered into My hands now,’ Satan answered.
‘Usen’t there to be a notice hereabouts, requesting visitors to leave all their hopes behind them?’ Gabriel peered into the Gulf as he spoke.
‘We’ve taken it down. We work on hope deferred now,’ Satan answered. ‘It acts more certainly.’
‘But I’m not conscious of anything going on,’ Azrael remarked.
‘The processes are largely mental. But now and again . . . For example!’ There was a minute sound, hardly louder than the parting of fever-gummed lips in delirium, but the Silence multiplied it like thunders in a nightmare. ‘That is one reconditioning now,’ Satan explained.
‘A hard lot. They frighten me sometimes,’ said Azrael.
‘And me always,’ Gabriel added. ‘I suppose that is because We are their servants.’
‘Of whom I am the hardest-worked,’ Satan insisted.
‘Oh, but you’ve every sort of labour-saving device, these days, haven’t you?’ Gabriel said vaguely.
‘None that eliminate responsibility. Take the case of that man and that woman we were talking about just now. What conclusion did you draw from the evidence of their Guardian Spirits?’
‘There was only one conclusion possible—if they should meet,’ Gabriel replied. ‘You yourself read the copy of their Orders for Life.’
‘And what did our young friend do? ’Rode off on glittering generalities about uplift and idealism and his precious scheme for debauching them both with all the luxuries, because “unhappy people can’t make others happy.” You heard him say it? He’s hopeless.’ Satan spoke indignantly.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t go as far as that. He’s English.’ Gabriel smiled.
‘And then,’ Satan held on, ‘did you see him look at me when I read out “Evil itself shall pity?” That means, if and when the worst comes to the worst I shall have to put it straight again. I shall be expected to do the whole of his dirty work—unofficially—and shoulder the unpopularity—officially. I shall have to give that couple Hell—and our young friend will take the credit of my success.’
‘The attitude is not unknown elsewhere,’ said Azrael. ‘Ve-ry little would persuade our worthy Michael, for instance, that his Sword is as effective as mine.’
‘I’ll prove my contention now,’ Satan turned to Gabriel, ‘if you’ll permit—we don’t need both of ’em—the woman’s guardian, Ruya’il, to report here for a moment. It’s night in England now. I can jam “all ill dreams” while she’s off duty. We shall have to manage the interview like one of their own cinemas, but you’ll overlook that, I hope.’
Gabriel gave the permission without which no Guardian Spirit may quit station, even for a breath, and on the instant, monstrously enlarged upon Space, her eyes shut against the glare that revealed her, stood Ruya’il in her last human shape as a woman upon earth.
Azrael moved forward.
‘One instant,’ said he. ‘I think I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mrs. ——’ (he gave her her name, address, and the date of her death). ‘You called for me at the time. You seemed glad to meet me. Why?’
‘Because I wanted to meet Gregory,’ came the answer, in the flat tones of the held.
‘There’s our trouble in a nutshell,’ said Satan, and took over the inquiry, saying:—‘You were under Our Hand for recondition and re-issue, Mrs.——. For what cause?’
‘Because of Gregory.’
‘Who was re-issued as Kalka’il. And he because of you?’
‘On what terms were you issued as Guardian Spirits, please?’
‘There were no terms. Gregory and I were free to meet in the course of our duties, if we could. So we did. It wasn’t his fault.’
‘Those, by the way, were the last words Eve ever spoke to me,’ Azrael whispered to Gabriel.
‘Indeed! ‘ Satan resumed. ‘So you met and, incidentally, your charges met, too. I think that will be all—oh, one minute more. You know ——?’ he named a railway terminus.
‘Yes.’ The eyelids quivered.
‘In London and—Ours here?’
‘Oh, please, don’t! Yes!’ A tear forced its way out, and glittered horribly on the cheek.
‘I beg your pardon! Thank you so much. I needn’t detain you any longer.’
‘Now you see my position,’ said Satan to the others. ‘Our young friend should have had all this information on his blotter before his inquiry began. When he called me in, he should have communicated it to me. Then I should have known where I stood. But he didn’t. He makes my job ten times more difficult than it need be by burking the essentials of it—stabs me in the back with his crazy schemes of betterment—and expects me to carry on! ‘
‘I’m afraid my Department must be responsible for the original error of detailing those two particular Guardian Spirits to those two particular people,’ said Gabriel. ‘At any rate, I accept the responsibility, and apologise.’
Satan laughed frankly. ‘No need. We’ve been opposite numbers since Adam. Mistakes will happen. I merely wished to show you something of our young friend’s loyal and helpful nature.’
‘Meantime, what steps are you taking with that man and that woman?’ Azrael asked.
‘Tentative, only. Listen!’
He lifted his hand for silence. A broken whisper that seemed one with all Space fought itself into their hearing:
‘My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?’
‘Was that an echo?’ said Gabriel presently. ‘Or was it in duplicate?’
‘In duplicate. But we don’t attach too much value to that class of expression. Very often it’s only hysteria—or vanity. One can’t be sure till much later.’
‘What were those curious metallic clicks after the message? ‘ Azrael asked.
‘In the woman’s case,’ Satan explained, ‘it was one of her rings against her tiara as she was putting it on to go to Court. In the second, it was the Star of some Order that the man was being invested with by his Sovereign. That proves how happy they are!’
A certain amount of human time passed.
‘Surely there’s music, too,’ Gabriel went on. ‘And words?’
Both were most faint, but quite clear:
‘I have a song to sing, oh!|
Sing me your song, oh!’
A break, a patter of verse, and then—on an almost unendurable movement that seemed to brush the heart-strings:
‘Misery me! Lackaday-dee!|
He died for the love of a lady!’
Last, the fall of a body.
‘Oh, that’s on a stage somewhere,’ said Satan. ‘They must be enjoying themselves now at a theatre. Everything’s coming their way. “Unhappy people can’t make people happy, y’know.” Well! Now you’ve heard them, I suggest that, if it doesn’t bore you too much, you meet me here on—Azrael must know the dates—they are due for filing and we’ll watch the result.’
After a glance into the future, Azrael gave a date in time as earth reckons it, and they parted.
As Death returned to his own sphere, by way of that Galaxy which had been denied knowledge of his existence, its Ruler heard a voice under the stars framing words, to him meaningless, such as these
‘His speech is a burning fire,|
With his lips he travaileth.
At his heart is a blind desire,
In his eye foreknowledge of Death.’
‘What grasp and vision you have!’ said Satan. ‘By the way, do you remember a man and a woman you were rather interested in, some time ago? “Male and female created He them”—didn’t He? Ruya’il, I think, was the woman’s Guardian Spirit.’
‘Perfectly,’ said the Archangel of the English. ‘They had a certain—not quite so large, perhaps, as they thought, but a certain—share in paving the way towards these present developments, which I have the honour to direct a little, perhaps, from my inconspicuous post in the background.’
‘Good! I remember you spoke rather highly of them.’
‘None the less ’—the Archangel joined his hands across a stomach that insisted a little—‘none the less I should ha-ardly mark those two definitely as among the Saviours of Society. We say in the Department that social service can be divided into two categories—Saviours and Paviours. Ha! Ha!’
‘How very neat!’ and Satan laughed, too.
‘You see it? As a matter of fact, it arose out of one of my own marginal notes on an Hierarchical docket. No-o! I think I should be constrained to mark that couple as first-class among second-class Paviours of Society.’
‘And what has happened to them?’ Satan pursued.
The Archangel of the English glanced towards Azrael, who replied: ‘Both filed.’
‘’Sorry for that—’sorry for that,’ the Archangel chirped briskly. ‘But of course I was only concerned to get the best work out of them which their limitations permitted. And I think, without unduly vaunting my methods, I have succeeded. By the way, I have just drafted a little bit of propaganda on the Interdependence of True Happiness and Vital Effort. It won’t take ten minutes to——’
But once again it appeared that his hearers had business elsewhere. And indeed they met, soon after, on the Edge of the Abyss.
‘If I had nerves,’ said Satan, ‘my young friend would arride them, as he’d say. What was he telling you when we left?’
‘Oh,’ said Azrael, ‘our Interdepartmental Commission hadn’t come up to his expectations. We couldn’t agree on a form of words for a modus moriendi.’
‘And then,’ Gabriel added, ‘he said Azrael hadn’t the judicial mind.’
‘How can! have?’ said Azrael simply. ‘I’m strictly executive. My instructions are to dismiss to the Mercy. Apropos—what has happened to that couple you were talking over with him, just now?’
‘I’ll show you in a minute.’ Satan looked about him. The light from his halo was answered by a throb of increased productivity through all the Hells. He shaped some wordless questions across Space, and nodded. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘She’s been in one of our shops, on test for Breaking Strain. He’s due for final test too. We’—Satan parodied the manner of the Archangel of the English—‘took the liberty of thinking that there was a little more work to be got out of him in the Paviour line, after our young friend above had dropped him. So we made him do it—rather as job did—on an annuity bought by his friends, in what they call a Rowton lodginghouse, with an incurable disease on him. In our humble judgment, his last five years’ realisation-output was worth all his constructive efforts.’
‘Does—did he know it?’ Gabriel asked.
‘Hardly. He was down and out, as the English say. I’ll show them both to you in a little. They met first at —— Terminus; didn’t they? . . . Good! . . . Follow me till you see me check!—So I . . . And here we are!’
‘But this is the Terminus! Line for line and’—Gabriel pointed to the newspaper posters—‘letter for letter!’
‘Of course it is. We don’t babble about Progress. We keep up with it.’
‘Then why’—Gabriel coughed as a locomotive belched smoke to the roof—‘why don’t you electrify your system? I never smelt such fuel.’
‘I have,’ said Azrael, expert in operations. ‘It’s ether—’he sniffed again—‘it’s nitrous oxide—it’s—it’s every sort of anaesthetic.’
‘It is. Smells wake memory,’ said Satan.
‘But what’s the idea?’ Gabriel demanded.
‘Quite simple. A large number of persons in Time have weaknesses for making engagements—on oath, I regret to say—to meet other persons for all Eternity. Most of these appointments are forgotten or overlaid by later activities which have first claim on our attention. But the residue—say two per cent—comes here. Naturally, it represents a high level. of character, passion, and tenacity which, ipso facto, reacts generously to our treatments. At first we used to put ’em into pillories and chaff ’em. When coaches came in, we accommodated them in replicas of roadside inns. With the advance of transportation, we duplicated all the leading London stations. (You ought to see some of ’em on a Saturday night!) But that’s a detail. The essence of our idea is that every soul here is waiting for a train, which may or may not bring the person with whom they have contracted to spend Eternity. And, as the English say, they don’t half have to wait either.’
Satan smiled on Hell’s own —— Terminus as that would appear to men and women at the end of a hot, stale, sticky, petrol-scented summer afternoon under summer-time—twenty past six o’clock standing for twenty past seven.
A train came in. Porters cried the number of its platform; many of the crowd grouped by the barriers, but some stood fast under the Clock, men straightening their ties and women tweaking their hats. An elderly female with a string-bag observed to a stranger: ‘I always think it’s best to stay where you promised you would. ’Less chance o’ missing ’im that way.’ ‘Oh, quite,’ the other answered. ‘That’s what I always do’; and then both moved towards the barrier as though drawn by cords.
The passengers filed out—they and the waiting crowd devouring each other with their eyes. Some, misled by a likeness or a half-heard voice, hurried forward crying a name or even stretching out their arms. To cover their error, they would pretend they had made no sign and bury themselves among their uninterested neighbours. As the last passenger came away, a little moan rose from the assembly.
A fat Jew suddenly turned and butted his way back to the ticket-collector, who was leaving for another platform.
‘Every living soul’s out, sir,’ the man began, ‘but—thank ye, sir—you can make sure if you like.’
The Jew was already searching beneath each seat and opening each shut door, till, at last, he pulled up in tears at the emptied luggage-van. He was followed on the same errand by a looseknit person in golfing-kit, seeking, he said, a bag of clubs, who swore bitterly when a featureless woman behind him asked: ‘Was you looking for a sweetheart, ducky?’
Another train was called. The crowd moved over—some hopeful in step and bearing; others upheld only by desperate will. Several ostentatiously absorbed themselves in newspapers and magazines round the bookstalls; but their attention would not hold and when people brushed against them they jumped.
‘They are all under moderately high tension,’ Satan said. ‘Come into the Hotel—it’s less public there—in case any of them come unstuck.’
The Archangels moved slowly till they were blocked by a seedy-looking person button-holing the Stationmaster between two barrows of unlabelled luggage. He talked thickly. The official disengaged himself with practised skill. ‘That’s all right, Sir. I understand,’ he said. ‘Now, if I was you I’d slip over to the Hotel and sit down and wait a bit. You can be quite sure, Sir, that the instant your friend arrives I’ll slip over and advise you.’
The man, muttering and staring, drifted on.
‘That’s him,’ said Satan. ‘“And behold he was in My hand ”—with a vengeance. Did you hear him giving his titles to impress the Stationmaster?’
‘What will happen to him?’ said Gabriel.
‘One can’t be certain. My Departmental Heads are independent in their own spheres. They arrange all sorts of effects. There’s one, yonder, for instance, that ’ud never be allowed in the other station up above.’
A woman with a concertina and a tin cup took her stand on the kerb of the road by Number One platform, where a crowd was awaiting a train. After a pitiful flourish she began to sing:—
‘The Sun stands still in Heaven—|
Dusk and the stars delay.
There is no order given
To cut the throat of the day.
My Glory is gone with my Power,
Only my torments remain.
Hear me! Oh, hear me!
All things wait on the hour
That sets me my doom again.’
But the song seemed unpopular, and few coins fell into the cup.
‘They used to pay anything you please to hear her—once,’ Satan said, and gave her name. ‘She’s saving up her pennies now to escape.’
‘Do they ever? ‘ Gabriel asked.
‘Oh, yes—often. They get clear away till—the very last. Then they’re brought back again. It’s an old Inquisition effect, but they never fail to react to it. You’ll see them in the ReadingRooms making their plans and looking up Continental Bradshaws. By the way, we’ve taken some liberties with the decorations of the Hotel itself. I hope you’ll approve.’
He ushered them into an enormously enlarged Terminus Hotel with passages and suites of public rooms, giving on to a further confusion of corridors and saloons. Through this maze men and women wandered and whispered, opening doors into hushed halls whence polite attendants reconducted them to continue their cycle of hopeless search elsewhere. Others, at little writing-tables in the suites of overheated rooms, made notes for honeymoons, as Satan had said, from the Bradshaws and steamer-folders, or wrote long letters which they posted furtively. Often, one of them would hurry out into the yard, with some idea of stopping a taxi which seemed to be carrying away a known face. And there were women who fished frayed correspondence out of their vanity-bags and read it with moist eyes close up to the windows.
‘Everything is provided for—“according to their own imaginations,”’ said Satan with some pride. ‘Now I wonder what sort of test our man will——’
The seedy-looking person was writing busily when a page handed him a telegram. He turned, his face transfigured with joy, read, stared deeply at the messenger, and collapsed in a fit. Satan picked up the paper which ran:—‘Reconsidered. Forgive. Forget.’
‘Tck!’ said Satan. ‘That isn’t quite cricket. But we’ll see how he takes it.’
Well-trained attendants bore the snorting, inert body out, into a little side-room, and laid it on a couch. When Satan and the others entered they found a competent-looking doctor in charge.
‘“He that sinneth—let him fall into the hands of the Physician,”’ said Satan. ‘I wonder what choice he’ll make?’
‘Has he any?’ said Gabriel.
‘Always. This is his last test. I can’t say I exactly approve of the means, but if one interferes with one’s subordinates it weakens initiative.’
‘Do you mean to say, then, that that telegram was forged?’ cried Gabriel hotly.
‘“There are lying spirits also, was the smooth answer.” Wait and see.’
The man had been brought to with brandy and salvolatile. As he recovered consciousness he groaned.
‘I remember now,’ said he.
‘You needn’t;’ the doctor spoke slowly. ‘We can take away your memory——’
‘If—if,’ said Satan, as one prompting a discourteous child.
‘If you please,’ the doctor went on, looking Satan full in the face, and adding under his breath:—‘Am I in charge here or are You? “Who knoweth—”’
‘If I please?’ the man stammered.
‘Yes. If you authorise me,’ the doctor went on.
‘Then what becomes of me?’
‘You’ll be free from that pain at any rate. Do you authorise me?’
‘I do not. I’ll see you damned first.’
The doctor’s face lit, but his answer was not cheering.
‘Then you’d better go.’
‘Go? Where in Hell to?’
‘That’s not my business. This room’s needed for other patients.’
‘Well, if that’s the case, I suppose I’d better.’ He rebuttoned his loosed flannel shirt all awry, rolled off the couch, and fumbled towards the door, where he turned and said thickly:—‘Look here—I’ve got something to say—I think . . . ’I—I charge you at the Judgment—make it plain. Make it plain, y’know . . . I charge you——’
But whatever the charge may have been, it ended in indistinct mutterings as he went out, and the doctor followed him with the bottle of spirits that had clogged his tongue.
‘There!’ said Satan. ‘You’ve seen a full test for Ultimate Breaking Strain.’
‘But now?’ Gabriel demanded.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because it was written: “Even Evil itself shall pity.”’
‘I told you long ago it would all be laid on me at last,’ said Satan bitterly.
Here Azrael interposed, icy and resplendent. ‘My orders,’ said he, ‘are to dismiss to the Mercy. Where is it?’
Satan put out his hand, but did not speak.
The Three waited in that casualty room, with its porcelain washstand beneath the glass shelf of bottles, its oxygen cylinders tucked under the leatherette couch, and its heart-lowering smell of spent anaesthetics—waited till the agony of waiting that shuffled and mumbled outside crept in and laid hold; dimming, first, the lustre of their pinions; bowing, next, their shoulders as the motes in the never-shifted sunbeam filtered through it and settled on them, masking, finally, the radiance of Robe, Sword, and very Halo, till only their eyes had light.
The groan broke first from Azrael’s lips. ‘How long?’ he muttered. ‘How long?’ But Satan sat dumb and hooded under cover of his wings.
There was a flurry of hysterics at the opening door. An uniformed nurse half supported, half led a woman to the couch.
‘But I can’t! I mustn’t!’ the woman protested, striving to push away the hands. ‘I—I’ve got an appointment. I’ve got to meet the 7.12. I have really. It’s rather—you don’t know how important it is. Won’t you let me go? Please, let me go I If you’ll let me go, I’ll give you all my diamonds.’
‘Just a little lay-down and a nice cup o’ tea. I’ll fetch it in a minute,’ the nurse cooed.
‘Tea? How do I know it won’t be poisoned. It will be poisoned—I know it will. Let me go I I’ll tell the police if you don’t let me go! I’ll tell—I’ll tell! Oh God!—who can I tell? . . . Dick! Dick! They’re trying to drug me! Come and help me! Oh, help me! It’s me, Dickie!’
Presently the unbridled screams exhausted themselves and turned into choking, confidential, sobbing whispers: ‘Nursie! I’m so sorry I made an exhibition of myself just now. I won’t do it again—on my honour I won’t—if you’ll just let me—just let me slip out to meet the 7.12. I’ll be back the minute it’s in, and then I’ll be good. Please, take your arm away!’
But it was round her already. The nurse’s head bent down as she blew softly on the woman’s forehead till the grey hair parted and the Three could see the Order for Life, where it had been first written. The body began to relax for sleep.
‘Don’t—don’t be so silly,’ she murmured. ‘Well, only for a minute, then. You mustn’t make me late for the 7.12, because—because . . . Oh! Don’t forget . . . “I charge you at the Judgment make it plain—I charge you——”’She ceased. The nurse looked as Kalka’il had done, straight into Satan’s eyes, and:—‘Go!’ she commanded.
Satan bowed his head.
There was a knock, a scrabbling at the door, and the seedy-looking man shambled in.
‘Sorry!’ he began, ‘but I think I left my hat here.’
The woman on the couch waked and, turning, chin in hand, chuckled deliciously:—‘What does it matter now, dear?’
‘How did it happen?’ Gabriel smoothed his plumes.
‘Well—as a matter of fact, we were rather ordered away,’ said Satan.
‘Ordered away? I?’ Azrael cried.
‘Not to mention your senior in the Service,’
Satan answered. ‘I don’t know whether you noticed that that nurse happened to be Ruya’il——’
‘Then I shall take official action.’ But Azrael’s face belied his speech.
‘I think you’ll find she is protected by that ruling you have so lucidly explained to our young friend. It all turns upon the interpretation of “Who,” you know.’
‘Even so,’ said Gabriel, ‘that does not excuse the neck-and-crop abruptness—the cinema—like trick—of our—our expulsion.’
‘I’m afraid, as the little girl said about her spitting at her nurse, that that was my invention. But, my Brothers’—the Prince of Darkness smiled—‘did you really think that we were needed there much longer?’
|1 See ‘On the Gate,’ Debits and Credits. [back]|