The souls of the dead were ascending towards the Judgment Seat and the Gate of Heaven. The world soul pressed them on every side, just as the atmosphere presses upon rising bubbles, striving to vanquish them, to break their thin envelope of personality, to mingle their virtue with its own. But they resisted, remembering their glorious individual life on earth and hoping for an individual life to come.
Among them ascended the soul of a Mr. Andrews who, after a beneficent and honourable life, had recently deceased at his house in town. He knew himself to be kind, upright, and religious, and though he approached his trial with all humility, he could not be doubtful of its result. God was not now a jealous God. He would not deny salvation merely because it was expected. A righteous soul may reasonably be conscious of its own righteousness, and Mr. Andrews was conscious of his.
“The way is long,” said a voice, “but by pleasant converse the way becomes shorter. Might I travel in your company?”
“Willingly,” said Mr. Andrews. He held out his hand, and the two souls floated upwards together.
“I was slain fighting the infidel,” said the other exultantly, “and I go straight to those joys of which the Prophet speaks.”
“Are you not a Christian?” asked Mr. Andrews gravely.
“No, I am a Believer. But you are a Moslem, surely?”
“I am not,” said Mr. Andrews.”I am a Believer.” The two souls floated upwards in silence, but did not release each other’s hands.”I am broad church,” he added gently. The word “broad” quavered strangely amid the interspaces.
“Relate to me your career,” said the Turk at last.
“I was born of a decent middle-class family, and had my education at Winchester and Oxford. I thought of becoming a Missionary, but was offered a post in the Board of Trade, which I accepted. At thirty-two I married, and had four children, two of whom have died. My wife survives me. If I had lived a little longer I should have been knighted.”
“Now I will relate my career. I was never sure of my father, and my mother does not signify. I grew up in the slums of Salonika. Then I joined a band and we plundered the villages of the infidel. I prospered and had three wives, all of whom survive me. Had I lived a little longer I should have had a band of my own.”
“A son of mine was killed travelling in Macedonia. Perhaps you killed him.”
“It is very possible.”
The two souls floated upward, hand in hand. Mr. Andrews did not speak again, for he was filled with horror at the approaching tragedy. This man, so godless, so lawless, so cruel, so lustful, believed that he would be admitted into Heaven. And into what a heaven—a place full of the crude pleasures of a ruffian’s life on earth! But Mr. Andrews felt neither disgust nor moral indignation. He was only conscious of an immense pity, and his own virtues confronted him not at all. He longed to save the man whose hand he held more tightly, who, he thought, was now holding more tightly on to him. And when he reached the Gate of Heaven, instead of saying,” Can I enter?” as he had intended, he cried out, “Cannot he enter?”
And at the same moment the Turk uttered the same cry. For the same spirit was working in each of them.
From the gateway a voice replied, “Both can enter.” They were filled with joy and pressed forward together.
Then the voice said, “In what clothes will you enter?”
“In my best clothes,” shouted the Turk, “the ones I stole.” And he clad himself in a splendid turban and a waistcoat embroidered with silver, and baggy trousers, and a great belt in which were stuck pipes and pistols and knives.
“And in what clothes will you enter?” said the voice to Mr. Andrews.
Mr. Andrews thought of his best clothes, but he had no wish to wear them again. At last he remembered and said, “Robes.”
“Of what colour and fashion?” asked the voice.
Mr. Andrew had never thought about the matter much. He replied, in hesitating tones, “White, I suppose, of some flowing soft material,” and he was immediately given a garment such as he had described.”Do I wear it rightly?” he asked.
“Wear it as it pleases you,” replied the voice.”What else do you desire?”
“A harp,” suggested Mr. Andrews.”A small one.”
A small gold harp was placed in his hand.
“And a palm—no, I cannot have a palm, for it is the reward of martyrdom; my life has been tranquil and happy.”
“You can have a palm if you desire it.”
But Mr. Andrews refused the palm, and hurried in his white robes after the Turk, who had already entered Heaven. As he passed in at the open gate, a man, dressed like himself, passed out with gestures of despair.
“Why is he not happy?” he asked.
The voice did not reply.
“And who are all those figures, seated inside on thrones and mountains? Why are some of them terrible, and sad, and ugly?”
There was no answer. Mr. Andrews entered, and then he saw that those seated figures were all the gods who were then being worshipped on the earth. A group of souls stood round each, singing his praises. But the gods paid no heed, for they were listening to the prayers of living men, which alone brought them nourishment. Sometimes a faith would grow weak, and then the god of that faith also drooped and dwindled and fainted for his daily portion of incense. And sometimes, owing to a revivalist movement, or to a great commemoration, or to some other cause, a faith would grow strong, and the god of that faith grow strong also. And, more frequently still, a faith would alter, so that the features of its god altered and became contradictory, and passed from ecstasy to respectability, or from mildness and universal love to the ferocity of battle. And at times a god would divide into two gods, or three, or more, each with his own ritual and precarious supply of prayer.
Mr. Andrews saw Buddha and Vishnu and Allah and Jehovah and the Elohim. He saw little ugly determined gods who were worshipped by a few savages in the same way. He saw the vast shadowy outlines of the NeoPagan Zeus. There were cruel gods and coarse gods and tortured gods, and, worse still, there were gods who were peevish, or deceitful, or vulgar. No aspiration of humanity was unfulfilled. There was even an intermediate state for those who wished it, and for the Christian Scientists a place where they could demonstrate that they had not died.
He did not play his harp for long, but hunted vainly for one of his dead friends. And though souls were continually entering Heaven, it still seemed curiously empty. Though he had all that he expected, he was conscious of no great happiness, no mystic contemplation of beauty, no mystic union with good. There was nothing to compare with that moment outside the gate, when he prayed that the Turk might enter and heard the Turk uttering the same prayer for him. And when at last he saw his companion he hailed him with a cry of human joy.
The Turk was seated in thought, and round him, by sevens, sat the virgins who are promised in the Koran.
“Oh, my dear friend!” he called out.”Come here and we will never be parted, and such as my pleasures are, they shall be yours also. Where are my other friends? Where are the men whom I love, or whom I have killed?”
“I, too, have only found you,” said Mr. Andrews. He sat down by the Turk, and the virgins, who were all exactly alike, ogled them with coal black eyes.
“Though I have all that I expected,” said the Turk, “I am conscious of no great happiness. There is nothing to compare with that moment outside the gate when I prayed that you might enter, and heard you uttering the same prayer for me. These virgins are as beautiful and good as I had fashioned, yet I could wish that they were better.”
As he wished, the forms of the virgins became more rounded, and their eyes grew larger and blacker than before. And Mr. Andrews, by a wish similar in kind, increased the purity and softness of his garment and the glitter of his harp. For in that place their e
xpectations were fulfilled, but not their hopes.
“I am going,” said Mr. Andrews at last.”We desire infinity and we cannot imagine it. How can we expect it to be granted? I have never imagined anything infinitely good or beautiful excepting in my dreams.”
“I am going with you,” said the other. Together they sought the entrance gate, and the Turk parted with his virgins and his best clothes, and Mr. Andrews cast away his robes and his harp.
“Can we depart?” they asked.
“You can both depart if you wish,” said the voice, “but remember what lies outside.”
As soon as they passed the gate, they felt again the pressure of the world soul. For a moment they stood hand in hand resisting it. Then they suffered it to break in upon them, and they, and all the experience they had gained, and all the love and wisdom they had generated, passed into it, and made it better.