SOUL IN PURGATORY
Dare I talk to you of the purgatory to
which the rage of battle conducts so many souls that only a little while
before walked the earth as men, and went their daily round from house to
office, loving their wives and children and exchanging worldly commonplaces
in the intervals of work, all unmindful that they were hourly drifting
toward the Great Event? Yes, I dare.
We will follow one soul that I myself followed. His story I can
reconstruct from memory, for every act of it is stamped upon my mind. No, I
do not need brain-cells to remember with. Neither will you—when you have
escaped the prison of your brain-cells.
The man was an officer in an English regiment and he was a
bachelor. Outwardly he was much like other men, but his consciousness was
different. He lived in a world of his own, for he was a reader and a
thinker. He was not a very good man. Not all Englishmen are good even
now when England is at war, you who bristle at any criticism of your beloved
maternal island—you who write for me!
This man was not very good because there
was so little love in his heart. He was not incapable of love, yet he was
unable to awaken love in others, and so was soul-starved. But sometimes he
was conscious of a great yearning, and when the yearning came he was
impatient, and took a drink, or cursed his servant, or both. Sometimes when
he was most impatient with the world and with himself, he went on a “spree.”
The war began.
His natural impatience found something congenial in the hurry
and noise of the expedition. He was glad to go.
He had known a German in London and had disliked him thoroughly.
The German talked too much, and his loud tones jarred on the sensitive ears
of the refined officer. As he led his men into battle he thought of this
German. He felt that he was battling with him at last face to face, and the
feeling gave him a thrill of satisfaction.
Hate had become an almost sensual luxury. The German had
fascinated by his blustering personality a woman of rather coarse type to
whom the officer had been impatiently attracted. He hated himself for the
attraction, and he hated the German for frustrating it. We always hate those
who frustrate the emotions we hate.
The officer was killed by a German bullet, in the early days of
the war. Where? Oh, no matter where! There are those who might recognize the
man, and I am not a betrayer of unwilling confidences. When I listen at the
keyhole of life I never report too much of what I hear. I use my discretion.
I shall call this man my friend, for I was so much his friend
that I have a right to claim him.
Before the battle in which my friend met death I had lingered
near him, with a desire to soften the hard feelings in his heart. Those
feelings are not usual among the soldiers of a particular section of the
northern battle-line. To them fighting is a sort of glorified sport—or it
was so last September.
My friend was an exception, and that is why
I choose to write about him, that my assertion of his exceptional qualities
may keep the reader from shuddering too much. I should not like my readers
to feel that their friends went through a similar experience. You who hang
above this page, my friend was not your friend. The experiences of your
friends were less terrible. They were all better men than he, because you
loved them, and this man was not good because he was not loved enough.
He met death by a rifle bullet. Then all became dark before him,
and he was unconscious for a time.
He was awakened by the noise of a bursting shell.
“The battle has begun,” he thought. “Damn that man! He should
have awakened me at dawn.”
He was among the men of his regiment. They seemed larger than
usual, and blurred in outline. He rubbed his eyes.
“Hell and damnation! Who have they put in my place?” For he saw
a minor officer who commanded where he had commanded.
He turned away, then came back again. He
would demand to know! He started toward the place where his superior officer
should have been, some distance away, and found himself instantly
“What is the matter with me?” he thought. “Have I lost my mind?”
He saluted the officer, who paid no attention to him.
“Am I asleep?” he wondered.
He went up to a soldier who was loading a rifle and touched him
on the arm. The soldier also paid no attention. He gripped the man’s arm.
Still he paid no attention, but raised his rifle and fired.
My friend went toward two men who were talking together.
“Poor old --------!” he heard one of them say. “Shot through the
heart! He was a good officer, though a surly fellow. I’m sorry he’s dead.”
The -------- they spoke of was himself.
“Shot through the heart—a good officer—a surly fellow—dead!”
He knew. Knowledge sometimes comes more slowly. He was “dead.”
“Just my luck!” was his instinctive thought.
Another shell burst behind him with a shattering report.
Suddenly he saw before him a face that riveted his attention. It
was a malignant, an insolent face. Then it changed into the face of his
enemy, the German back in England whom he hated.
“So it’s you, is it?” he asked.
The spectre made no answer, but changed its shape again. This
time it was like the woman whom my friend had hated himself for liking.
“You, too!” he said, impatiently.
Again the spectre changed countenance. It was like a servant
whom my friend had cursed once too often, and who had left him the year
“Are you, too, dead?” he asked; but the face before him had now
resumed its original appearance. It was merely a malignant, insolent face,
resembling nobody in particular.
“What are you, anyway?” my friend demanded; but still there was
The eye of the spectre interested him—the
left eye. As he gazed at it, the eye gradually enlarged until it seemed the
size of a target in a shooting-gallery. The iris, of a peculiar
greenish-blue, was in the very middle of the eye, so that the white showed
all round. The black pupil stared at him with its concentrated malice—a
pupil large as a saucer.
“Why do you do that?” demanded my friend; but the eye still made
Then it vanished.
A troop of hateful shades came in its place, ugly shades, some
human, some sub-human. Another shell burst nearby, and the shades began to
dance. They caught at him and whirled him around with them, around and
around until he was dizzy. Then suddenly they stopped, and each and all of
them changed into the form of the German back in England whom my friend had
hated. Then another group of mad beings mingled with them. They also changed
suddenly—there were a dozen duplicates of the woman whom my friend had hated
himself for liking, and they and the duplicates of his enemy caught one
another’s hands and kissed each other.
Sick, revolted, my friend wished himself
away, and he was away. He was over among the soldiers of the German army
across the plain. He heard the sounds of the language he disliked.
“What the devil!” he thought, and the devil stood before him,
hoofs, horns and tail complete.
“Hadn’t thought of me before, had you?” sneered the evil being.
My friend was hurt and bewildered by the appearance, for it
looked, with all its unlovely accessories, so like himself.
“Will you, too, change form in a moment?” he asked.
“Oh, no! I change slowly. I only change as you change.”
“What do you mean?”
“You only can change me.”
“Change, then!” said my friend. But the demon remained as
my friend; but still the figure before him changed not at all.
lied when you said I could change you!”
“I said that
I change slowly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I only change as
have not changed, then?”
“It is my business to keep you from changing.”
In company with his devil my friend now went through scenes
which I refrain from describing, Goethe in the Walpurgis Night having done
it so well before me. Reckless, desperate, he followed his leader until he
was weary and exhausted. Days, weeks passed away, like a nightmare.
“Can I never get rid of you?” he asked his companion.
“Yes, you can get rid of me.”
“By getting rid of yourself.”
“That’s easier said than done.”
“Yes, that’s easier said than done.”
Often they found
themselves on the battlefield in the fighting line, or at the mess of the
soldiers. The smell of the coffee and the cooking meats brought temporary
satisfaction to my friend. He tried to drink from brandy flasks tilted to
the mouths of men who could not see him or protest; he steeped himself in
hungers and despairs. His companions were always changing themselves into
the forms of the man he hated and the woman he loved. He witnessed their
coarse love-making. Sometimes the simulacrum of the woman turned to him with
a friendly word. He cursed her, but clung to her hand. But always she
vanished when his mouth yearned to hers.
Sometimes in a great battle the rage of war awoke in him. He
hurled himself at the men of the opposing army, as if he would take revenge
upon them for all he was suffering. He struggled to tear the rifles from
their hands, and when one of them passed out of the body he tried to awake
him from the darkness and the sleep into which he was sinking; but never
could he succeed in doing this. Never could he succeed in doing anything.
His very existence was failure and futility and discouragement.
One day I came to him and touched him on
“You are not like these others,” he said, dully. “Where do you
“I came from a distance,” I said. “Would you like to go with
“Anywhere away from here,” he assented.
“Do you want to be alone?”
“No. It is worst when I am alone.”
“The worst is over,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you have exhausted for the time the springs of your
lower desires. You are weary and disgusted with the life you have led since
you escaped your body.”
“That is a strange expression—escaped! It is only now that I
long to escape.”
“And it is I that will help you to escape from another layer of
your prison, another skin of the onion that shuts you in.”
“And why do you do this?”
“To spare you unnecessary fumbling to break the skin,” I said.
“Would you like to go to sleep?”
“I should like to rest a little.”
While he slept I helped to loosen him further, and when he awoke
into another and freer world I was still with him.
“What would you like to see?” I asked.
“Something beautiful,” he answered, “something beautiful and
“Would you care to witness a dance of elves?” I asked, smiling.
“A dance of elves? Are there really such
“The universe contains innumerable forms of life and
consciousness,” I said. “And you who believe in devils from experience can
surely believe in elves.”
They came toward us as I spoke, lithe, tenuous forms, dancing
with joy across the flowery spaces of the Elysian Fields. They swayed and
circled around us, those beings pure as the air in which they moved, light
as the happiness they exhaled, enduring as hope and lovelier than mortal
The shadows had all gone from my friend’s face, and he too
seemed to taste joy, he too was light as air, and pure. He joined their
dance and circled with them around me.
I tell you in a burst of confidence that I also have danced with
elves. This companion and friend of the Beautiful Being has swum in the sea
of universal life and floated on the wings of irresponsibility. He who knows
too much of the world’s sorrow must sometimes lighten the load by knowing
nothing but joy.
When the sylphs had gone to their more inviolable retreat,
another shape came toward us.
“What would you like to see now?” I asked
“Can I see a person who still lives in England?” he asked, half
shyly, yet with the winning confidence of souls who trust their own
desires—the higher wisdom which comes with the purification of desire.
“Perhaps,” I said.
The form that came toward us was unfamiliar to me, but my friend
recognized and welcomed it. A woman of intense and vital personality, yet
with that purity of atmosphere without which no communion is possible in the
region where we then were, was standing beside my friend.
“Let us sit together a little,” I said. “It will seem more
The two beside me seemed happy in each other’s presence.
“Sisterly-sweet hand in hand,” they sat together; and though I knew that one
of them was only the simulacrum of a living woman, yet she also seemed real
to me for the moment, for the kind sentiments of the heart are real,
and in the region to which I had conducted my friend all sentiments are
kind. No enemies are found there, and the woman he liked also liked him, or
she could not have been there.
Soon I left them in each other’s company
and went back to the labors of the battlefield; for there were others who
needed me, and my friend was safe for the time.
After a while I shall help him onward to an experience still
less restricted. We take an interest in those whom we have helped, and wish
to help them further.
Why did I choose this man for my friendly ministrations, you are
wondering; for as I described him in the beginning of this letter he was not
an attractive character.
I tell you a little secret: It was because he was unattractive
that I chose him. No one had ever loved him enough, and so he needed help
more than others. Those who are loved are already helped by that love. As
the Beautiful Being says, “Do you get my meaning, daughter of earth?”
Just now I live to serve mankind through the horrors of this
war. Serve also by loving those who least attract your love. So shall you
learn the way to the Path where walk the Masters of Compassion.