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A short story by James Huneker


Title:     Antichrist
Author: James Huneker [More Titles by Huneker]

To wring from man's tongue the denial of his
existence is proof of Satan's greatest power.

The most learned man and the most lovable it has been my good fortune to know is Monsignor Anatole O'Bourke--alas! I should write, was, for his noble soul is gathered to God. I met him in Paris, when I was a music student. He sat next to me at a Pasdeloup concert in the Cirque d'Hiver, how many years ago I do not care to say. A casual exclamation betrayed my nationality, and during the intermission we drifted into easy conversation. Within five minutes he held me enthralled, did this big-souled, large-brained Irishman from the County Tipperary. We discussed the programme--a new symphonic poem by Rimski-Korsakoff, Sadko, had been alternately hissed and cheered--and I soon learned that my companion mourned a French mother and rejoiced in the loving presence of a very Celtic father. From the former he must have inherited his vigorous, logical intellect; the latter had evidently endowed him with a robust, jovial temperament, coupled with a wonderful perception of things mystical.

After the concert we walked slowly along the line of the boulevards. It was early May, and the wheel of green which we traversed, together with the brilliant picture made by the crowds, put us both in a happy temper. It was not long before Monsignor heard the confession of my ideals. He smiled quickly when I raved of music, but the moment I drifted into the theme of mysticism--the transposition is ever an easy one--I saw his interest leap to meet mine.

"So, you have read St. John of the Cross?" I nodded my head.

"And St. Teresa, that marvellous woman? The Americans puzzle me," he continued. "You are the most practical people on the globe and yet the most idealistic. When I hear of a new religion, I am morally certain that it is evolved in America."

"A new religion!" I started. This phrase had often assailed me, both in print and in the depths of my imagination. He divined my thought--ah! he was a wonder-worker in the way he noted a passing nuance.

"When we wear out the old one, it will be time for a new religion," he blandly announced; "you Americans, because of your new mechanical inventions, fancy you have free entry into the domain of the spiritual. But come, my dear young friend. Here is my hotel. Can't I invite you to dinner?" We had reached the Boulevard Malsherbe and, as I was miles out of my course, I consented. The priest fascinated me with his erudition, which swam lightly on the crest of his talk. He was, so I discovered during the evening, particularly well versed in the mystical writers, in the writings of the Kabbalists and the books of the inspired Northman, Swedenborg. As we sat drinking our coffee at one of the little tables in the spacious courtyard, I revived the motive of a new religion.

"Monsignor, have you ever speculated on the possible appearance of a second Mahomet, a second Buddha? What if, from some Asiatic jungle, there sallied out upon Europe a terrible ape-god, a Mongolian with exotic eyes and the magnetism of a religious madman--"

"You are speaking of Antichrist?" he calmly questioned.

"Antichrist! Do you really believe in the Devil's Messiah?"

"Believe, man! why, I have seen him."

I leaned back in my chair, wondering whether I should laugh or look solemn. He noted my indecision, and his eyes twinkled--they were the blue-gray of the Irish, the eyes of a seer or an amiable ironist.

"Listen! but first let us get some strong cigars. Garcon!" As we smoked our panatelas he related this history:--

"You ask me if I believe in an Antichrist, thereby betraying your slender knowledge of the Scriptures--you will pardon the liberty! I may refer you not only to John's Epistles, to the revelations of the dreamer of Patmos, but to so many learned doctors of the faith that it would take a week merely to enumerate the titles of their works all bearing on the mysterious subject. Our Holy Mother the Church has held aloof from any doctrinal pronouncements. The Antichrist has been predicted for the past thousand years. I recall as a boy poring over the map of the world which a friend of my mother had left with her. This lady my father called 'the angel with the moulting wings,' because she was always in an ecstatic tremor over the second coming of the Messiah. She would go to the housetop at least once every six months, and there, with a band of pious deluded geese dressed in white flowing robes, would inspect the firmament for favourable signs. Nothing ever happened, as we know, yet the predictions sown about the borders of that strange-looking chart have in a measure come true.

"There were the grimmest and most resounding quotations from the Apocalypse. 'Babylon is fallen, is fallen!' hummed in my ears for many a day. And the pale horse also haunted me. What would I have given to hear the music of that 'voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of great thunder.' I mean the 'harpers harping with their harps' the 'new song before the throne, before the four beasts and the elders.' It is recorded that 'no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.' That is a goodly multitude. Let us hope we shall be of it. Learned Sir Thomas Browne asked what songs the sirens sang. I prefer to hear that wonderful 'harped' song.

"But I wander. The fault lies in that wondrous map of the world, with its pictured hordes of Russians sweeping down upon Europe and America like a plague of locusts, the wicked unbaptized Antichrist at the head of them, waving a cross held in reversed fashion. Don't ask me the meaning of this crazy symbolism. The sect to which my mother's friend belonged--God bless her, for she was a dear weak-minded lady--must have set great store by these signs. I admit that as a boy they scared me. Sitting here now, after forty years, I can still see those cryptograms. However, to my tale. About ten years ago I was in Paris, and in my capacity as Monsignor I had to attend a significant gathering at the embassy of the Russian ambassador in this city of light." He waved his left hand, from which I caught the purple fire of amethyst.

"It was a notable affair, and I don't mind telling you now that it was largely political. I had just returned from a secret mission at Rome, and I was forced to mingle with diplomatic people. Prince Wronsky was the representative of the Czar at that time in France, a charming man with a flavour of diablerie in his speech. He was a fervent Greek Catholic, like most of his countrymen, and it pleased him to fence mischievously with me on the various dogmas of our respective faiths. He called himself the Catholic; I was only a Roman Catholic. I told him I was satisfied.

"On this particular night he was rather agitated when I made my salutations. He whispered to me that madame the princess had that very day presented him with a son and heir. Naturally I congratulated him. His restlessness increased as the evening wore on. At last he beckoned to me--we were very old friends--to follow him into his library. There he hesitated.

"'I want you to do me a favour, an odd one; but as you are known to me so long I venture to ask it. Do go upstairs and see my boy--' His tone was that of entreaty. I smiled.

"'Dear prince, I am, as a priest, hardly a judge of children. But if you wish it--is there anything wrong with the little chap's health?'

"'God forbid!' he ejaculated and piously crossed himself. We went to the first etage of his palace--he was gorgeously housed--and there he said:--

"'Madame is in another wing of our apartments--go in here--the child is attended by the nurse.' With that he pushed me through a swinging door and left me standing in a semi-lighted chamber. I was very near ill temper, I assure you, for my position was embarrassing. The room was large and heavily hung with tapestries. A nurse, a hag, a witch, a dark old gypsy creature, came over to me and asked me, in Russian:--

"'Do you wish to see his Royal Highness the King of Earth and Heaven?' Thinking she was some stupid moujik's wife, I nodded my head seriously, though amused by the exalted titles. She put up a thin hand and I tiptoed to a cradle of gold and ivory--it certainly seemed so to my inexperienced eyes--the nurse parted the curtains, and there I saw--I saw--but my son, you will think I exaggerate--I saw the most exquisite baby in the universe. You laugh at an old bachelor's rhapsody! In reality I don't care much for children. But that child, that supreme morsel of humanity, was too much for me. I stood and stared and stood and stared, and all the while the tiny angel was smiling in my eyes, oh! such a celestial smile. From his large blue eyes, like flowers, he smiled into my very soul. I was chained to the floor as if by lead. Every fibre of my soul, heart, and brain went out to that little wanderer from the infinite. It was a pathetic face, full of suppressed sorrow--Dieu! but he was older than his father. I found my mind beginning to wander as if hypnotized. I tried to divert my gaze, but in vain. Some subtle emanation from this extraordinary child entered my being, and then, as if a curtain were being slowly lowered, a mist encompassed my soul; I was ceding, I felt, the immortal part of me to another, and all the time I was smiling at the baby and the baby smiling back. I remember his long blond hair, parted in the middle and falling over his shoulders; but even that remarkable trait for an infant a few hours old did not puzzle me, for my sanity was surely being undermined by the persistent gaze of the boy. I vaguely recall passing my hand across my breast as if to stop the crevice through which my personality was filtering; I was certain that my soul was about to be stolen by that damnable child. Then the nurse dropped something, and my thoughts came back,--they were surely on the road to hell, for they were red and flaming when I got hold of them,--and the spell, or whatever it was, snapped.

"I looked up and noticed the woman maliciously smiling--if it had been in the days of the inquisition, I would have sent her to the faggots, for she was a hell-hag. The child had fallen back in his cradle as if the effort of holding my attention had exhausted him. Then it struck me that there was something unholy about this affair, and I resolutely strode to the crib and seized the baby.

"'What changeling is this?' I demanded in a loud voice, for the being that twisted in my grip was two or two hundred years old.

"'Lay him down, you monster!' clamoured the nurse, as I held the squirming bundle by both hands. It was a task--and I'm very strong. A superhuman strength waged against my muscles; but I was an old football half-back at the university, so I conquered the poor little devil. It moaned like a querulous old man; the nurse, throwing her weight upon me, forced me to let go my hold. As I did so the baby turned on its face, its dainty robe split wide open, and to my horror I saw on its back, between its angelically white shoulders, burnt in as if by branding irons, the crucifix--and upside down!"

I shuddered. I knew. He lowered his voice and spoke in detached phrases.

"It was--oh! that I live to say it--it was the dreaded Antichrist--yes, this Russian baby--it was predicted that he would be born in Russia--I trembled so that my robes waved in an invisible wind. The reversed cross--the mark of the beast--the sign by which we are to know the Human Satan--the last opponent of Christianity. I confess that I was discomposed at the sight of this little fiend, for it meant that the red star, the baleful star of the north, would rise in the black heavens and bloody war spread among the nations of the earth. It also meant that doomsday was not far off, and, good Christian as I believe myself to be, a shiver ran down my spine at the idea of Gabriel's trump and the resurrection of the dead. Yes, I shan't deny it--so material are the sons of men, I among them! And the very thought of Judgment Day and its blasting horrors withered my heart. Still something had to be done, prophecy or no prophecy. To fulfil the letter of the law this infernal visitor was let loose from hell. There was one way, so I grasped--"

"Great God, Monsignor, you didn't strangle the demon?" I cried.

"No, no--something better. I rushed over to a marble wash-basin and seized a ewer of water, and, going back to the crib, despite the frantic remonstrances of the old sorceress, I baptized the Antichrist in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Before my eyes I saw the inverted cross vanish. Then I soundly spanked the presumptuous youngster and, running down the staircase, I sought the prince and said to him:--

"'Your boy is now a Roman, not a Greek Catholic. We are quits!'"

The idea of a spanked Antichrist disconsolately roaming the earth, unwilling to return to his fiery home for fear of a scolding, his guns of evil spiked, his virus innocuous, his mission of spiritual destruction a failure--for what could a baptized devil's child do but pray and repent?--all this dawned upon me, and I burst into laughter, the worthy Monsignor discreetly participating. His bizarre recital proved to me that, despite his Gallic first name, Monsignor Anatole O'Bourke hailed from the County Tipperary.

[The end]
James Huneker's short story: Antichrist