The white people (1899, 1922 ed)
by Arthur Machen
from The house of souls
, New York
(1906, 1922 ed.)
"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. I There are many, I think, who
eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely
sharper than anything within the experience of the
"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
"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 introduction.
"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 broke in--
"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 sinful! Come!"
"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 non-murderers 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
"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 under-estimate 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
"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 really is."
"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
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
"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 great saint."
"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
"Yes; but in one place the word
'sorcerers' comes in the same sentence, doesn't it? That
seems to me to give the key-note. 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
"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
"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
"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 kings."
"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
"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 enough?"
"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 palæontologist 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
Ambrose undid a wrapping of paper, and produced a green pocket-book.
"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
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.
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