This is something between a pastiche of and a crossover with Rudyard Kipling's short story On the Gate. Heaven, St. Peter, Death and even Joan of Arc so interpreted were Mr. Kipling's idea first; I pastiche with love and respect.
* * *
Quia Multum Amavit: A Tale of The Gate
* * *
The guardians of The Gate, if those willing souls who herd the great Convoys of the dead to safety may be so called -- and e'en St. Peter considered himself only a caretaker -- had reason enough to congratulate themselves, for it had been a long day and the stream of souls was only now slackening. They had scarce had time to link arms and swing around for home, however, when, as if to prove that the principle that one's work is never done holds true in Heaven as well as in all the other worlds, the cry went up that there was trouble with the latest incoming.
This was a lost soul of unknown provenance, with a strange fixity of intention; he staggered up the road, veering left to where the Lower Establishment stood in their noisome ranks. They jeered at him as he stumbled towards them, and broke out into raucous laughter when he fell. There was none of the cooing with which the Lower Establishment were apt to lure their intended from The Gate, as though they were certain of this one, knowing the heart of the torture that drove him to Hell's embrace.
A great hiss was rising from them when St. Peter arrived at a run, his robes caught up around him, and one of the pickets covered his face, that he might not see.
"There! There he is! I tell you there is a way -- there must! Oh, put down your hands!" cried his companion, a clear-eyed girl in armour. She turned to the Saint. "Sir, you will not allow it? He says -- " she jerked the hilt of her sword in the direction of the presiding Seraph, in a gesture of unutterable Gallic scorn -- "that we must let him go where he will, forsooth, because of his great sin."
"What is this?" said St. Peter, looking at the Seraph; that good official ruffled like an offended peacock, feathers abristle.
"It is one of the Lower Establishment, sir," he said. "There must have been some mix-up in Normal Civil Death." He spoke with all the disapproval of the bureaucrat seeing inefficiency in others. "They have been growing sadly incompetent of late, with the recent influx of souls -- ah, sir! I didn't see you!"
"I imagine you didn't," said Death dryly. "At ease, man! It is not, ah, my Department to run, as I think you will find if you speak to its Head. What nature of mix-up is this, then?"
"An Imp proposing to enter by this route?" St. Peter interrupted. "How came this to pass?"
"He expired on Earth, sir. We think he must have been posted there. Yet even so, to confer him a place among the immortal souls . . ."
"As Below, so Above," muttered one of the pickets, then -- "There he goes! Oh!" A shiver of relief went through the line of volunteers as the soul tore its sleeve from the grasping hand of a Fiend, and pulled away, cursing. St. Peter turned to the girl.
"I'm sorry, Joan," he said. "It doesn't fall under our jurisdiction, I'm afraid. I can't see my way to allowing -- " The girl stamped her foot.
"He is not theirs, I will vouch for it," she said. "Why, I know him -- I know him, I tell you. He spoke to me, that day in Rouen. His eyes were exactly the same. I -- I'll swear he meant no harm."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, nothing -- nothing!" The girl was seething. "He only gave me comfort, that is all. He only grieved for me -- I tell you I could see it in his eyes. He only wanted to help me, he and his friend. Oh, why may we not go?"
"His friend?" said Death. Joan flushed.
"St. Peter knows him, sir," she said. She addressed the Saint: "He was recalled after that business with the Armageddon. You assigned him to The Gate, if you recall."
"Ah! A Power? Posted on Earth, was he? Why haven't you mentioned it?"
"You didn't ask, sir, and he didn't seem to wish it known. And I do think it's unfair for a soul's business on Earth to be held against it here -- if there was no harm in it."
The Seraph whispered in St. Peter's ear. It was only a sentence, but the Saint's face cleared at once.
"Oh, ah! Is that it, then? Oh, yes, yes, I see. Of course. I see your reasons perfectly, my dear."
"Who is it?" murmured Death, for St. Peter seemed amused.
"Oh, a Principality: a minor agent. I fancy we stationed him on Earth a little too long. He is not quite the thing among the Cherubim -- a rank heretic, d'you see, and plain-spoken about it -- but well-meaning. Yes, full of the milk of human kindness. That was the problem."
"I'm afraid I don't quite catch your meaning."
"He'd gone native," St. Peter explained. "He doesn't trust the Department as far as he can throw it, now -- and I can't say that I blame him! No, he's a little too unorthodox for the platoons, but he has been tremendously helpful on the Gate. But I think you know him. Oh, yes! You must have seen him, when you rode out with the other Three."
"Ah! He's the Angel, is he?" said Death. "I thought I recognised the description. I know him. As you say, the kindest creature in the world -- but left to his own devices too long, perhaps. You got him in on the Q. M. A. Ruling, then?"
"Oh, no. He was recalled," said St. Peter. "It was felt his -- ahem -- morals could do with a change of air. He's no ordinary soul, you know, but one of those who serve. There was no need to wangle him in, even if his opinions are unfashionable."
The import of Death's statement sank in only then.
"For she loved much -- why, are you saying he needed that?"
"Well, as you know, I had no dealings with him directly, so I can't say anything about him," said Death. "But that one -- " he nodded at the flailing yellow-eyed soul -- "spoke a few words when I went to meet him. Some of them are not fit to repeat in mixed company -- he was no sort of gentleman -- but there was a name. And the way he said it -- well! You know I am not impressionable -- but it was a shock, hearing grace in the mouth of such a one."
The Seraph crimsoned from ear-tip to ear-tip, and tried to speak, but St. Peter ignored him.
"I had no idea!" He glanced at the soul, as if an answer lay in his bewilderment.
"Would you happen to know if there was any, ah, feeling on the other's side?"
"No -- no!" St. Peter wavered. "I would have seen -- surely I would have seen it. There has been no indication whatsoever. And yet . . . I wouldn't have thought it of him. No one could be so -- his opinions may be inflammatory, but he's perfectly upstanding in all respects. I can hardly believe it of him."
"How is he, on The Gate?"
"Oh, the worst soul could not look for a kinder judge. I believe if he were allowed, he would pass every soul who had ever suffered, regardless of form. It is his view that anyone who has suffered has had enough punishment. He says there is enough of a Hell on Earth -- not to go giving them another when they've left it."
"He may have a point." This was from an Englishman with a grave, ascetic face. "I know what it's like. As He is my witness, I suffered enough -- not to take it into account!"
"Of course -- of course, Shaw." St. Peter was very gentle.
"Words, words!" cried Joan. "See him there -- they have nearly got him again! Will no-one go to help him?"
"Can we, sir?" The Englishman turned to St. Peter with an inquiring look, ready to spring to rescue at a word.
The Saint was troubled.
"It goes against the grain to refuse, and if he was touched by grace -- and yet, if he is no mortal -- " He threw up his hands. "Oh, go, my children. We will fight it out with the Lower Establishment, if they think to offer any cheek." They sped off, and St. Peter looked up at Death, smiling wryly.
"They'll kick up such a row as will set all the heavens a-tremble," he said. "How I will have to bustle to keep us out of trouble! But we do not answer to those who 'also believe'."
"Then who do you answer to?" said Death.
"My heart, and no sooner than I ought to have begun -- may forgiveness be granted me!" The Saint looked after his volunteers with pity and love. "They don't need telling. Though some remember more than others. Shaw's mostly all right now, but sometimes I am half afraid he will go running to the Lower Establishment himself, when the pain is on him. I was so. I know!"
"They have their work cut out for them," said Death. The ranks of the Lower Establishment surged, calling to the soul by names hurtful and true: "Come to us! Traitor -- serpent! Come to your own!"
"My people will do it," said St. Peter. "Hearken to Eve!"
The Woman was cutting a swathe through the mocking swarm of evil spirits and minor devils, keeping a circle clear for the lost soul when they would overwhelm it. When "Who will speak for you, away from your kin?" hissed the assembled minions of Hell, she answered in ringing tones, "I -- even I! Can any -- dare any here say he has been more wronged by this one than I? I speak for him, who partook of the bitterness of Knowledge from his hand! O come to me, my brother!"
Yet the soul spun and fled in another direction, as if too maddened by pain to know where he would go, and it was only the swift action of the pickets that kept him from running headlong into the thick of the Lower Establishment. Those watching stirred anxiously, and St. Peter unclenched his fists.
"They will -- they must do it," he muttered. "Would that Michael were here! He would sort these louts out in short order."
"Would he, do you think?" said Death. "He has always struck me as somewhat conservative in these matters. This one is a -- ah -- lout as well, remember."
St. Peter managed a laugh.
"True. I had forgotten that," he said. "But bless my soul, when there is a job to be done, you cannot stick at details. What now?"
It was Joan who loped up to them, her sword returned to its sheath; she merely nodded at them when St. Peter shouted questions, however, and ran on past.
"Reinforcements, sir," she flung over her shoulder. "It's Eve's idea. You'll see!"
"Not that way! Oh, not that way!" gasped a picket. The soul looked very small as spirits greater than he thronged around him, friends and foes alike. He whipped his head back and forth, searching for a way to escape, and the anguish of the desperate, repetitive movement clutched the watchers at the throat.
"If we must let him go, I will have an insurrection on my hands," said St. Peter, but the brisk tone disguised his worry poorly. There was a disturbance in the crowd then, and Joan reappeared, flushed and triumphant.
"There you are," she said, with the grave pride of a child who has done a good thing.
"What is it?" said the Saint, as devils went flying and pickets twirled out of the way. "Oh, ah! I see!"
"What have you set loose?" said Death, straining to see.
An Angel was shouldering through the masses, his halo fairly blazing with indignation.
"Excuse me -- excuse me. If you would be so kind -- " He slapped aside an astonished Imp out of sheer impatience, and stepped right up to the poor bewildered soul.
"Love," said St. Peter simply. "I can't conceive why I didn't think of it."
"Look!" cried Eve, her eyes alight. "Oh, look! Didn't I tell you it was the only thing would work?"
"Crowley," said the angel, his voice travelling clear as a blessing across the plain, "where on -- where in -- where the -- wherever do you think you're going?"
The soul turned to him. There was no glad cry, but a sigh ran through the ranks when they saw his eyes.
"Exactly the same!" said Joan, but St. Peter turned to Death and said, beaming with satisfaction, "Yes, you are certainly correct. I fancy it is the Q. M. A. Ruling that comes into play here -- bless them!"
But the Principality named Aziraphale was curling an arm around his friend's back, and murmuring explanations as he steered him away from his former colleagues, and Heaven and Hell could have fallen apart before either of them noticed anything apart from the other.