Hell Needs a Chaplain

PADRE FRANCISCO was listening. The arc of the mountains encircled him on all sides but one, where shone the deserted sea. There was a fast, clear stream at his feet, and on the farther bank a meadow, very green and studded with white boulders and jeweled with low flowers in the short grass. It was spring, and there were children in the meadow; one of them held a lamb by the forefeet and played that he was teaching it to dance. Men said there was war in Spain, but Spain was beyond Galicia and Galicia beyond the mountains. No railway crossed the mountains, nor any way but one, and that unkindly to horse and man. Caladonga had its cove by the sea, but only the fishermen of the village ever landed there, for it offered no open entry to the passing craft.

Padre Francisco was listening to music: the music of a pipe which trilled and warbled from a bank of yellow iris by the stream. The child did not hear it, though his feet moved in time to the measure. The lamb heard, and its head was turned towards the stream. Padre Francisco heard. His cloth did not protect him from the pipe of Pan, for he was innocent and beloved. He raised his hand and blessed the pipe and its player. All creatures in Caladonga, seen or unseen, were his flock.

There was no shame, either of men or of the Others, among his flock, for he did not accuse. He knew the spring upon the hillside visited at the new moon by the unmarried girls. He left untouched the grains of wheat scattered upon the high stone which stood in a ring of uncut grass. He was silent when the returning fishermen poured wine into the sea opposite a silver-sanded cave. Padre Francisco had blessed these sanctuaries. He said: —

‘If there is need of your charity, give, my children. But give in the name of the Most High and pray for him that receives.’

For sixty years he had tended his parish — a white, red-roofed village and its little plain, forgotten of all save the carrier and his mule. He had never left it, nor had he ever tired of it. His eyes were thankful and rejoiced in the detail of the earth as if he had been reborn each morning with the sun. His faith was humble and complete. His theology was the theology of Caladonga. He read the pastorals of a bishop whom he had never seen, bidding him guard against this and that heresy, and this and that deadly sin. ‘Nay, but there is no deadly sin,’ said Padre Francisco. Caladonga had no sin that he could not readily forgive, and to him Caladonga was the world.

As he sat on the bank of the stream, a peasant came to him and saluted him. His name was Castor He-of-the-Oranges. He had no other surname. Castor stood as if ashamed, with bent head and folded hands, waiting for the old man to speak to him. Padre Francisco looked at him sorrowfully.

‘Does it trouble you still, Castor?’ he asked.

‘Yes. You must exorcise it, padre. It will not go away.’

‘Castor, Castor, that which has been created should not be hurt.’

‘Then do it gently, padre! My house is unhappy, and you must help us. We cannot sleep for the noises and the drifting lights, but because you told us to be forgiving we have borne with them. We summoned the curandera, the wise woman —’

‘That was sin, my son,’ interrupted Padre Francisco, shaking his silver head.

‘ I know it, padre — but what were we to do? The spirit pinched her and she ran away shrieking. That too we could forgive, for the curandera was insolent and demanded money. But now we dare not be patient any longer. This morning I found my two oxen tied together by the hairs of their tails. They were sweating with panic, and must be bled or they will die. Without our oxen we should starve. You must help us, padre’

‘So be it then,’ said Padre Francisco.

He rose. The eddies of the breeze played around his cassock, moulding it to his spare figure with love, as if he had been a young girl in whom the winds delighted.

Together they walked along the stream. When they came to the village bridge Padre Francisco stopped.

‘Castor,’ he asked, ‘if it were a mischievous boy who played these tricks on you, you would not cast him out of your house forever?’

‘But it is not a boy,’ said the peasant simply.

The old man sighed, and went on alone towards his church.

Castor with his wife and children waited for him at the door of their white cottage. The faded blue of the lintels and twisted balconies held all the colors of the sky. Two orange trees stood in the garden with late fruit still showing like flowers among the leaves. The spirit haunted the house because he loved it, not because he must.

Now wearing his stole and carrying a flask of holy water, Francisco came to them and blessed them. Humbly he prayed that he might be worthy, and forthwith began the conjuration. Severe and terrible was the Latin, but Padre Francisco’s voice was gentle.

‘I adjure thee, Old Serpent — ’ he began.

But it was no command. He was the superior and knew that he would be obeyed; therefore he had no need of vehemence.

Audi ergo, Satana, et time! Hear therefore, Satan, and fear! Conquered and prostrate, retire!’

Padre Francisco meant what he said, for it was a naughty deed to tie his parishioner’s oxen together by the tails. He hoped that the spirit would not be very frightened, but he intended that it should retire.

Five psalms he said, and sprinkled the house with holy water; then again five psalms and for a third time five. The last was Ecce quam bonum — behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! As the old man intoned the psalm, he heard the words echoed to a melody that soared in a golden treble over his voice.

‘Dominus vobiscum,’ said Padre Francisco.

‘Et cum spiritu tuo,’ answered Theyof-the-Oranges.

‘Et cum spiritu tuo,’ said a grateful voice as of one passing through the doorway.

Padre Francisco walked back to the church and took off his stole. Then he went down to the seashore and sat upon the sand of the cove, for he was sorrowful and wished to be alone.

The cove was like an inland pool. The sea entered through an archway, and above the packed swell of the Atlantic the sheep pastured on a roof of green turf. From the horns of the crescent-shaped beach where Padre Francisco sat, two low cliffs converged upon the archway; through the entry he could see an anchored boat lifting and falling on the open sea, and beyond it the horizon. At his feet the water was pale green, transparent over the shelving sand; under the cliffs to right and to left of him it was blue and purple, and brown shadows glided about their business.

There indeed was Padre Francisco in the midst of love. The shepherd above the arch called to him good-day. The fisherman in the boat waved a hand, and held up a creel of rock bass for him to see. A cormorant which sat like an old serpent — it was Padre Francisco’s metaphor — upon a ledge of rock straightened its sinuous neck, swooped and landed in the ripples at his feet. The great black bird sidled up to him, blinking its eyes. It looked at him long and fearlessly, as if judging his worth. Its pupils were red and inset with curious reflections.

‘What is good and what is evil?’ thought Padre Francisco. ‘I can see no evil, and therefore I will pray for guidance.’

Now this was not accounted a sin to Padre Francisco, for, as the whims of a sick child may command its parents, so were Heaven and Hell disturbed by the vagaries of this earth. ‘What is good?’ asked the advance guard of the angels. ‘What is evil?’ asked the left wing of the armies of Satan.

And Satan went to and fro upon the earth and longed for the ancient days, for he could not recognize his servants or his enemies. There were those who destroyed the Church for the sake of Faith, and those who destroyed Faith for the sake of the Church. Nor did death decide the loyalties of a perverse generation. Austere, religious souls floated to Heaven and declared themselves atheists. The worldly plunged downwards into Hell, where they were found to be clerics of blameless life and irreproachable morality.

But Satan knew that the earth, though it was but a little earth, was greatly beloved in Heaven as in Hell. Therefore he drew up a great document in Hebrew and Latin and letters of fire, which began ‘FORASMUCH AS WE SATAN ARE AT A Loss’ and resolved itself into magnificent periods upon the inalienable rights of the High Contracting Parties. But in Heaven his meaning was understood. It was made known to him that he had only to choose an acceptable ambassador for Heaven to be represented at his Court.

He asked for Michael, since they had been friends in the fresh morning of eternity, and as enemies they had respected one another. And Michael took up his residence in Hell, heralded by four secretaries to the Embassy who were the four beasts full of eyes before and behind.

Many were the banquets and rejoicings at the Embassy. The windless night of the damned was rich with music. David came down and played the harp for them, and Nero’s violin wailed upwards into chaos borne on the winged feet of Saint Cecilia at the organ. Pan composed a symphony on dawn, and played it on his pipe, accompanied by the trumpeters of an Archangel’s Guard.

And on a certain evening Satan and Michael walked in the garden of the Embassy and wept together that the simplicity of earth was lost.

‘There are many who believe in you,’ said the Devil, ‘but so few left who believe in us. And now the time has come for one of the last of them to die. May we give him a gift, Michael?’

‘Why not?’ asked Michael.

‘Because he is one of your servants,’ Satan explained. ‘A certain Padre Francisco of Caladonga in Galicia.’

‘I am weary of Spanish priests,’ said Michael.

‘I am weary of Spanish anarchists,’ said Satan.

‘What has he done for your people?’ asked Michael.

‘He has pitied them,’ said the Devil. ‘By all I hear, I think he is a saint.’

‘And a Christian too?’ the Archangel asked.

‘As in the ancient days, Michael, when saints were saints and the Tempter tempted.’

And Michael perceived that, exchanging one courtesy for another, he could obtain for his Embassy the one dignity that it lacked,

‘Satan,’ he said, ‘I need a chaplain.’

‘I am old,’ answered the Devil, ‘but not a bigot. Myself, I would willingly attend a service. But I do not know if my people would stand it. I really do not.’

‘Even if my chaplain were Padre Francisco of Caladonga?’

‘I will have a look at him,’ said Satan.

Now it was at this moment in the time of earth that the cormorant sidled up to Padre Francisco.

‘You can have your chaplain,’ said the Devil, restoring his spirit to eternity. ‘But what of the gift my people would present to him?’

‘We give you his death,’ answered Michael.

Padre Francisco lay back upon the sand with his hands crossed at his throat. He was tired, and it was good to feel the strength of his beloved earth against his back and the warmth of the sun upon his body. He closed his eyes. A ripple of water like the streaming arrow at the bows of a light boat formed in the archway and curled towards him across the cove. In the brown and purple shadows of the cliffs seven ripples formed upon his right hand, and seven ripples upon his left. Smaller than the first they were, and shaped like cupids’ bows; they might have been moulded to the breasts of women advancing through the water; they took on the colors of the sun like little breaking waves. The sheep above the arch moved away, and the shepherd followed them; there was, as it were, a sea haze forming upon the turf, and he was afraid to stay. Behind Padre Francisco the grasses of the fields waved in the wind, but there were many winds from many quarters, and the ranks of the flowers bent and straightened as the spirits of earth passed on towards the cove.

The ripple that had formed under the arch reached the shore, and Padre Francisco was awakened by the singing of many voices. He sat up, and then leapt to his feet in wonder and in joy at those who compassed him about. His lips parted and his eyes were full of tears. He opened his arms as if to gather into them the massed armies of the spirits, and he cried: —

‘Lo! Before I die I have seen the glory of the living earth! ’

The angels caught up Padre Francisco from the midst of his lovers, and took him into Heaven and robed and anointed him. The Saints received him into their number and led him out to the gates, chanting in procession. Then, olivecrowned, borne upon the wings of doves with satyrs dancing before and behind, guarded by the drawn swords of the squadrons of the Prince of Darkness, Padre Francisco entered into Hell.