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A short story by Gertrude Atherton

When The Devil Was Well

Title:     When The Devil Was Well
Author: Gertrude Atherton [More Titles by Atherton]

The Devil locked the copper gates of Hell one night, and sauntered down a Spacian pathway. The later arrivals from the planet Earth had been of a distressingly commonplace character to his Majesty--a gentleman of originality and attainments, whatever his disagreements with the conventions. He was become seriously disturbed about the moral condition of the sensational little twinkler.

"What are my own about?" he thought, as he drifted past planets which yielded up their tributes with monotonous regularity. "What a squeezed old orange would Earth become did I forsake it! I must not neglect it so long again; my debt of gratitude is too great. Let me see. Where shall I begin? It is some years since I have visited America in person, and unquestionably she has most need of my attention; Europe is in magnificent running order. This is a section of her, if my geography does not fail me; but what? I do not recall it."

He poised above a country that looked as if it still hung upon the edge of chaos: wild, fertile, massive, barren, luxuriant, crouching on the ragged line of the Pacific. From his point of vantage he saw long ranges of stupendous mountains, some but masses of scowling crags, some green with forests of mammoth trees projecting their gaunt rigid arms above a carpet of violets; indolent valleys and swirling rivers; snow on the black peaks of the North; the riotous colour of eternal summer in the South. Suddenly he uttered a sharp exclamation and swept downward, halting but a mile above the ground. He frowned heavily, then smiled--a long, placid, sardonic smile. There appeared to be but few inhabitants in this country, and those few seemed to live either in great white irregular buildings, surmounted by crosses, in little brown huts near by, in the caves, or in hollowed trees on the mountains. The large buildings were situated about sixty miles apart, in chosen valleys; they were imposing and rambling, built about a plaza. They boasted pillared corridors and bright red tiles on their roofs. Within the belfries were massive silver bells, and the crosses could be seen to the furthermost end of the valley and from the tops of the loftiest mountain.

"California!" exclaimed the Devil. "I know of her. Her scant history is outlined in the Scarlet Book. I remember the points: Climate, the finest, theoretically, in the world; satanically, simply magnificent. I have waited impatiently for the stream of humanity to deflect thitherward, but priests will answer my present purpose exactly--unless they are all too tough. To continue, gold under that grass in chunks--aha! I shall have to throw out an extra wing in Hell! Parched deserts where men will die cursing; fruitful valleys, more gratifying to my genius; about as much of one as of the other, but the latter will get all the advertising, and the former be carefully kept out of sight. Everything in the way of animal life, from grizzly bears to fleas. A very remarkable State! Well, I will begin on the priests."

He shot downward, and alighted in a valley whose proportions pleased his eye. Its shape was oval; the bare hills enclosing it were as yellow and as bright as hammered gold; the grass was bronze-coloured, baking in the intense heat; but the placid cows and shining horses nibbled it with the contentment of those that know not of better things. A river, almost concealed by bending willows and slender erect cottonwoods, wound capriciously across the valley. The mission, simpler than some of the others, was as neatly kept as the farm of older civilizations. Peace, order, reigned everywhere; all things drowsed under the relentless outpouring of the midsummer sun.

"It is well I do not mind the heat," thought his Majesty; "but I am sensible of this. I will go within."

He drew a boot on his cloven foot, thus rendering himself invisible, and entered a room of the long wing that opened upon the corridor. Here the temperature was almost wintry, so thick were the adobe walls.

Two priests sat before a table, one reading aloud from a bulky manuscript, the other staring absently out of the window. The reader was an old man; his face was pale and spiritual; no fires burned in his sunken eyes; his mouth was stern with the lines of self-repression. The Devil lost all interest in him at once, and turned to the younger man. His face was pale also, but his pallor was that of fasting and the hair shirt; the mouth expressed the determination of the spirit to conquer the restless longing of the eyes; his nostrils were spirited; his figure was lean and nervous; he moved his feet occasionally, and clutched at the brown Franciscan habit.

"Paulo," said the older priest, reprovingly, as he lifted his eyes and noted the unbowed head, "thou art not listening to the holy counsel of our glorious Master, our saint who has so lately ascended into heaven."

"I know Junipero Serra by heart," said Paulo, a little pettishly. "I wish it were not too hot to go out; I should like to take a walk. Surely, San Miguel is the hottest spot on earth. The very fleas are gasping between the bricks."

"The Lord grant that they may die before the night! Not a wink have I slept for two! But thou shouldest not long for recreation until the hour comes, my son. Do thy duty and think not of when it will be over, for it is a blessed privilege to perform it--far more so than any idle pleasure--just as it is more blessed to give than to receive--"

Here the Devil snorted audibly, and both priests turned with a jump.

"Did you hear that, my father?"

"It is the walls cracking with the intense heat. I will resume my reading, and do thou pay attention, my son."

"I will, my father."

And for three hours the Devil was obliged to listen to the droning voice of the old man. He avenged himself by planting wayward and alarming desires in Paulo's fertile soul.

Suddenly the mission was filled with the sound of clamorous silver: the bells were ringing for vespers--a vast, rapid, unrhythmical, sweet volume of sound which made the Devil stamp his hoofs and gnash his teeth. The priests crossed themselves and hurried to their evening duties, Satan following, furious, but not daring to let them out of his sight.

The church was crowded with dusky half-clothed forms, prostrate before the altar. The Devil, during the long service, wandered amongst them, giving a vicious kick with his cloven foot here, pricking with the sharp point of his tail there, breeding a fine discord and routing devotion. When vespers were over he was obliged to follow the priests to the refectory, but found compensation in noting that Paulo displayed a keen relish for his meat and wine. The older man put his supper away morsel by morsel, as if he were stuffing a tobacco-pouch.

The meal finished, Paulo sallied forth for his evening walk. The Devil had his chance.

He was a wise Devil--a Devil of an experience so vast that the world would go crashing through space under its weight in print. He wasted no time with the preliminary temptations--pride, ambition, avarice. He brought out the woman at once.

The young priest, wandering through a grove of cottonwoods, his hands clasped listlessly behind him, his chin sunken dejectedly upon his breast, suddenly raised his eyes and beheld a beautiful woman standing not ten paces away. She was not a girl like her whom he had renounced for the Church, but a woman about whose delicate warm face and slender palpitating bosom hung the vague shadow of maturity. Her hair was the hot brown of copper, thick and rich; her eyes were like the meeting of flame and alcohol. The emotion she inspired was not the pure glow which once had encouraged rather than deprecated renunciation; but at the moment he thought it sweeter.

He sprang forward with arms outstretched, instinct conquering vows in a manner highly satisfactory to the Devil; then, with a bitter imprecation, turned and fled. But he heard light footfalls behind him; he was conscious of a faint perfume, born of no earthly flower, felt a soft panting breath. A light hand touched his face. He flung his vows to anxious Satan, and turned to clasp the woman in his arms. But she coyly retreated, half-resentfully, half-invitingly, wholly lovely. Satan closed his iron hand about the vows, and the priest ran toward the woman, the lines of repression on his face gone, the eyes conquering the mouth. But again she retreated. He quickened his steps; she accelerated hers; his legs were long and agile; but she was fleet of foot. Finally she ran at full speed, her warm bright hair lifted and spreading, her tender passionate face turned and shining through it.

They left the cottonwoods, and raced down the wide silent valley, the cows staring with stolid disapproval, the stars pulsing in sympathy. The priest felt no fatigue; he forgot the Church behind him, the future of reward or torment. He wanted the woman, and was determined to have her. He was wholly lost; and the Devil, satisfied, returned to the mission.

"Now," thought he, "for revenge on that old fool for defying me for sixty years!"

He raised his index finger and pointed it straight at the planet Hell. Instantly the sky darkened, the air vibrated with the rushing sound of many forms. A moment later he was surrounded by a regiment of abbreviated demons--a flock as thick as a grasshopper plague, twisted, grinning, leering, hideous. He raised his finger again and they leaped to the roofs of the mission, wrenched the tiles from their place and sent them clattering to the pavement. They danced and wrestled on the naked roof, yelling with their hoarse unhuman voices, singing awful chants.

The Devil passed within, and found the good old priest on his knees, a crucifix clasped to his breast, his white face upturned, shouting ave marias and pater nosters at the top of his aged voice as if fearful they would not ascend above the saturnalia on the roof. The Devil added to his distraction by loud bursts of ribald laughter; but the father, revolving his head as if it were on a pivot, continued to pray. Satan began to curse like a pirate.

Suddenly, above the crashing of tiles, the hideous voices of Devil and demon, the prayers of the padre, sounded the silver music of the bells. Not the irregular clash which was the daily result of Indian manipulation, but long rhythmic peals, as sweet and clear and true as the singing of angels. The Devil and his minions, with one long, baffled, infuriated howl, shot upward into space. Simultaneously a great wind came roaring down the valley, uprooting trees, shaking the sturdy mission. Thunder detonated, lightning cut its zigzag way through black clouds like moving mountains; hail rattled to the earth; water fell as from an overturned ocean. And through all the bells pealed and the priest prayed.

Morning dawned so calm and clear that but for the swimming ground and the broken tiles bestrewing it, the priest would have thought he had dreamed a terrible nightmare. He opened the door and looked anxiously forth for Paulo. Paulo was not to be seen. He called, but his tired voice would not carry. Clasping his crucifix to his breast, he tottered forth in search of his beloved young colleague. He passed the rancheria of the Indians, and found them all asleep, worn out from a night of terror.

He was too kind to awaken them, and pursued his way alone down the valley, peering fearfully to right and left. The ground was ploughed, dented, and strewn with fallen trees; the river roared like a tidal wave. Shuddering, and crossing himself repeatedly, he passed between the hills and entered a forest, following a path which the storm had blasted. After a time he came to an open glade where he and Paulo had loved to pray whilst the spring and the birds made music. To his surprise he saw a large stone lying along the open. He wondered if some meteor had fallen. Mortal hands--Indian hands, at least--were not strong enough to have brought so heavy a bulk, and he had not seen it in forest or valley before.

He approached and regarded it; then began mumbling aves and paters, running them together as he had not done during the visitation and storm. The stone was outlined with the shape of a man, long, young, and slender. The face was sharply cut, refined, impassioned, and intellectual. A smile of cynical contentment dwelt on the strong mouth. The eyes were fixed on something before him. Involuntarily the priest's followed them, and lingered. A tree also broke the open--one which never had been there before--and it bore an intoxicating similitude to the features and form of a surpassingly beautiful woman.

"Paulo! Paulo!" murmured the old man, with tears in his eyes, "would that I had been thou!"

[The end]
Gertrude Atherton's short story: When The Devil Was Well