'Sorcery and sanctity,' said Ambrose, 'these are the only realities.
Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.'
Cotgrave listened, interested. He had been brought by a
friend to this mouldering house in a northern suburb, through
an old garden to the room where Ambrose the recluse dozed
and dreamed over his books.
'Yes,' he went on, 'magic is justified of her children. There
are many, I think, who eat dry crusts and drink water, with a
joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of
the "practical" epicure.'
'You are speaking of the saints?'
'Yes, and of the sinners, too. I think you are falling into the
very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely
good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have
their portion in it. The merely carnal, sensual man can no more
be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are
just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the
world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of
things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness
are alike second-rate, unimportant.'
'And you think the great sinner, then, will be an ascetic, as
well as the great saint?'
'Great people of all kinds forsake the imperfect copies and go
to the perfect originals. I have no doubt but that many of the
very highest among the saints have never done a "good action"
(using the words in their ordinary sense). And, on the other
hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths
of sin, who all their lives have never done an "ill deed."'
He went out of the room for a moment, and Cotgrave, in high
delight, turned to his friend and thanked him for the
'He's grand,' he said. 'I never saw that kind of lunatic before.'
Ambrose returned with more whisky and helped the two men
in a liberal manner. He abused the teetotal sect with ferocity,
as he handed the seltzer, and pouring out a glass of water for
himself, was about to resume his monologue, when Cotgrave
'I can't stand it, you know,' he said, 'your paradoxes are too
monstrous. A man may be a great sinner and yet never do anything
'You're quite wrong,' said Ambrose. 'I never make paradoxes;
I wish I could. I merely said that a man may have an exquisite
taste in Romanée Conti, and yet never have even smelt four
ale. That's all, and it's more like a truism than a paradox, isn't
it? Your surprise at my remark is due to the fact that you
haven't realized what sin is. Oh, yes, there is a sort of connexion
between Sin with the capital letter, and actions which are
commonly called sinful: with murder, theft, adultery, and so
forth. Much the same connexion that there is between the A, B,
C and fine literature. But I believe that the misconception—it is
all but universal—arises in great measure from our looking at
the matter through social spectacles. We think that a man who
does evil to us and to his neighbours must be very evil. So he
is, from a social standpoint; but can't you realize that Evil in its
essence is a lonely thing, a passion of the solitary, individual
soul? Really, the average murderer, quâ murderer, is not by
any means a sinner in the true sense of the word. He is simply
a wild beast that we have to get rid of to save our own necks
from his knife. I should class him rather with tigers than with
'It seems a little strange.'
'I think not. The murderer murders not from positive qualities,
but from negative ones; he lacks something which nonmurderers
possess. Evil, of course, is wholly positive—only it is
on the wrong side. You may believe me that sin in its proper
sense is very rare; it is probable that there have been far fewer
sinners than saints. Yes, your standpoint is all very well for
practical, social purposes; we are naturally inclined to think
that a person who is very disagreeable to us must be a very
great sinner! It is very disagreeable to have one's pocket
picked, and we pronounce the thief to be a very great sinner.
In truth, he is merely an undeveloped man. He cannot be a
saint, of course; but he may be, and often is, an infinitely better
creature than thousands who have never broken a single commandment.
He is a great nuisance to us, I admit, and we very
properly lock him up if we catch him; but between his
troublesome and unsocial action and evil—Oh, the connexion is
of the weakest.'
It was getting very late. The man who had brought Cotgrave
had probably heard all this before, since he assisted with a
bland and judicious smile, but Cotgrave began to think that his
'lunatic' was turning into a sage.
'Do you know,' he said, 'you interest me immensely? You
think, then, that we do not understand the real nature of evil?'
'No, I don't think we do. We over-estimate it and we underestimate
it. We take the very numerous infractions of our social
"bye-laws"—the very necessary and very proper regulations
which keep the human company together—and we get
frightened at the prevalence of "sin" and "evil." But this is
really nonsense. Take theft, for example. Have you any horror
at the thought of Robin Hood, of the Highland caterans of the
seventeenth century, of the moss-troopers, of the company promoters
of our day?
'Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such
an enormous importance to the "sin" of meddling with our
pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness
of real sin.'
'And what is sin?' said Cotgrave.
'I think I must reply to your question by another. What would
your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk
to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would
be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in
your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose
the stones in the road began to swell and grow before
your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot
out stony blossoms in the morning?
'Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin
'Look here,' said the third man, hitherto placid, 'you two
seem pretty well wound up. But I'm going home. I've missed
my tram, and I shall have to walk.'
Ambrose and Cotgrave seemed to settle down more profoundly
when the other had gone out into the early misty morning
and the pale light of the lamps.
'You astonish me,' said Cotgrave. 'I had never thought of
that. If that is really so, one must turn everything upside down.
Then the essence of sin really is——'
'In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me,' said Ambrose.
'It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate
into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner.
You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed,
who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in
ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content
with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and
sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius,
who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes;
on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a
'There is something profoundly unnatural about Sin? Is that
what you mean?'
'Exactly. Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an
effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is
an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But
sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain
alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a
demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a
sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer.
Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good
and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social,
civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense
than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has
lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his.
In brief, he repeats the Fall.'
'But are you a Catholic?' said Cotgrave.
'Yes; I am a member of the persecuted Anglican Church.'
'Then, how about those texts which seem to reckon as sin
that which you would set down as a mere trivial dereliction?'
'Yes; but in one place the word "sorcerers" comes in the
same sentence, doesn't it? That seems to me to give the keynote.
Consider: can you imagine for a moment that a false
statement which saves an innocent man's life is a sin? No; very
good, then, it is not the mere liar who is excluded by those
words; it is, above all, the "sorcerers" who use the material life,
who use the failings incidental to material life as instruments
to obtain their infinitely wicked ends. And let me tell you this:
our higher senses are so blunted, we are so drenched with materialism,
that we should probably fail to recognize real
wickedness if we encountered it.'
'But shouldn't we experience a certain horror—a terror such
as you hinted we would experience if a rose tree sang—in the
mere presence of an evil man?'
'We should if we were natural: children and women feel this
horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most
of us convention and civilization and education have blinded
and deafened and obscured the natural reason. No, sometimes
we may recognize evil by its hatred of the good—one doesn't
need much penetration to guess at the influence which dictated,
quite unconsciously, the "Blackwood" review of
Keats—but this is purely incidental; and, as a rule, I suspect
that the Hierarchs of Tophet pass quite unnoticed, or, perhaps,
in certain cases, as good but mistaken men.'
'But you used the word "unconscious" just now, of Keats' reviewers.
Is wickedness ever unconscious?'
'Always. It must be so. It is like holiness and genius in this as
in other points; it is a certain rapture or ecstasy of the soul; a
transcendent effort to surpass the ordinary bounds. So, surpassing
these, it surpasses also the understanding, the faculty
that takes note of that which comes before it. No, a man may
be infinitely and horribly wicked and never suspect it. But I tell
you, evil in this, its certain and true sense, is rare, and I think
it is growing rarer.'
'I am trying to get hold of it all,' said Cotgrave. From what
you say, I gather that the true evil differs generically from that
which we call evil?'
'Quite so. There is, no doubt, an analogy between the two; a
resemblance such as enables us to use, quite legitimately, such
terms as the "foot of the mountain" and the "leg of the table."
And, sometimes, of course, the two speak, as it were, in the
same language. The rough miner, or "puddler," the untrained,
undeveloped "tiger-man," heated by a quart or two above his
usual measure, comes home and kicks his irritating and injudicious
wife to death. He is a murderer. And Gilles de Raiz was a
murderer. But you see the gulf that separates the two? The
"word," if I may so speak, is accidentally the same in each case,
but the "meaning" is utterly different. It is flagrant "Hobson
Jobson" to confuse the two, or rather, it is as if one supposed
that Juggernaut and the Argonauts had something to do etymologically
with one another. And no doubt the same weak likeness,
or analogy, runs between all the "social" sins and the real
spiritual sins, and in some cases, perhaps, the lesser may be
"schoolmasters" to lead one on to the greater—from the shadow
to the reality. If you are anything of a Theologian, you will
see the importance of all this.'
'I am sorry to say,' remarked Cotgrave, 'that I have devoted
very little of my time to theology. Indeed, I have often
wondered on what grounds theologians have claimed the title
of Science of Sciences for their favourite study; since the
"theological" books I have looked into have always seemed to
me to be concerned with feeble and obvious pieties, or with the
kings of Israel and Judah. I do not care to hear about those
'We must try to avoid theological discussion,' he said. 'I perceive
that you would be a bitter disputant. But perhaps the
"dates of the kings" have as much to do with theology as the
hobnails of the murderous puddler with evil.'
'Then, to return to our main subject, you think that sin is an
esoteric, occult thing?'
'Yes. It is the infernal miracle as holiness is the supernal.
Now and then it is raised to such a pitch that we entirely fail to
suspect its existence; it is like the note of the great pedal pipes
of the organ, which is so deep that we cannot hear it. In other
cases it may lead to the lunatic asylum, or to still stranger issues.
But you must never confuse it with mere social misdoing.
Remember how the Apostle, speaking of the "other side," distinguishes
between "charitable" actions and charity. And as
one may give all one's goods to the poor, and yet lack charity;
so, remember, one may avoid every crime and yet be a sinner'
'Your psychology is very strange to me,' said Cotgrave, 'but I
confess I like it, and I suppose that one might fairly deduce
from your premisses the conclusion that the real sinner might
very possibly strike the observer as a harmless personage
'Certainly, because the true evil has nothing to do with social
life or social laws, or if it has, only incidentally and accidentally.
It is a lonely passion of the soul—or a passion of the lonely
soul—whichever you like. If, by chance, we understand it, and
grasp its full significance, then, indeed, it will fill us with horror
and with awe. But this emotion is widely distinguished from
the fear and the disgust with which we regard the ordinary
criminal, since this latter is largely or entirely founded on the
regard which we have for our own skins or purses. We hate a
murder, because we know that we should hate to be murdered,
or to have any one that we like murdered. So, on the "other
side," we venerate the saints, but we don't "like" them as well
as our friends. Can you persuade yourself that you would have
"enjoyed" St. Paul's company? Do you think that you and I
would have "got on" with Sir Galahad?
'So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil
man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with
horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should
"dislike" him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you
could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might
find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might
have to reason yourself back into horror. Still, how awful it is.
If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning;
if the furniture began to move in procession, as in De
'I am glad you have come back to that comparison,' said Cotgrave,
'because I wanted to ask you what it is that corresponds
in humanity to these imaginary feats of inanimate things. In a
word—what is sin? You have given me, I know, an abstract
definition, but I should like a concrete example.'
'I told you it was very rare,' said Ambrose, who appeared
willing to avoid the giving of a direct answer. 'The materialism
of the age, which has done a good deal to suppress sanctity,
has done perhaps more to suppress evil. We find the earth so
very comfortable that we have no inclination either for ascents
or descents. It would seem as if the scholar who decided to
"specialize" in Tophet, would be reduced to purely antiquarian
researches. No palaeontologist could show you a live
'And yet you, I think, have "specialized," and I believe that
your researches have descended to our modern times.'
'You are really interested, I see. Well, I confess, that I have
dabbled a little, and if you like I can show you something that
bears on the very curious subject we have been discussing.'
Ambrose took a candle and went away to a far, dim corner of
the room. Cotgrave saw him open a venerable bureau that
stood there, and from some secret recess he drew out a parcel,
and came back to the window where they had been sitting.
Ambrose undid a wrapping of paper, and produced a green
'You will take care of it?' he said. 'Don't leave it lying about.
It is one of the choicer pieces in my collection, and I should be
very sorry if it were lost.'
He fondled the faded binding.
'I knew the girl who wrote this,' he said. 'When you read it,
you will see how it illustrates the talk we have had to-night.
There is a sequel, too, but I won't talk of that.
'There was an odd article in one of the reviews some months
ago,' he began again, with the air of a man who changes the
subject. 'It was written by a doctor—Dr. Coryn, I think, was the
name. He says that a lady, watching her little girl playing at
the drawing-room window, suddenly saw the heavy sash give
way and fall on the child's fingers. The lady fainted, I think, but
at any rate the doctor was summoned, and when he had
dressed the child's wounded and maimed fingers he was
summoned to the mother. She was groaning with pain, and it
was found that three fingers of her hand, corresponding with
those that had been injured on the child's hand, were swollen
and inflamed, and later, in the doctor's language, purulent
sloughing set in.'
Ambrose still handled delicately the green volume.
'Well, here it is,' he said at last, parting with difficulty, it
seemed, from his treasure.
'You will bring it back as soon as you have read it,' he said,
as they went out into the hall, into the old garden, faint with
the odour of white lilies.
There was a broad red band in the east as Cotgrave turned to
go, and from the high ground where he stood he saw that awful
spectacle of London in a dream.
Merci pour la lecture!