― 124 ―

Dies Irae.

IT was some millions of years after the great Judgment Day. Satan had been sleeping, and when he awoke he felt somewhat chilly.

“Confound those imps!” he exclaimed, “I believe they've let the fires down a bit. A more careless set of devils I never had to do with in all my eternity. I'll give them particular sheol for this.”

As he spoke he touched the electric bell, and a few seconds afterwards a trapdoor in the floor fell open, and a devil, burnt to a rich terra-cotta by the eternal fires, shot into the presence of the Lord of Hell.

“How now, sir?” thundered the potentate; “do you think hell was meant to be an ice-house, that you let the fires down so low? You seem to have mistaken your vocation. The whole stoking department ought to have been angels with white robes and crowns of glory. What do you mean by it, anyhow?”

The stoker-devil trembled like a leaf. “May it please your majesty,” he said, “it isn't really our fault; the fact is, we are running out of fuel.”

“What!” roared Satan, “running out of fuel, with the whole universe to draw on?”

“We've been using ten constellations a minute for the last three million years,” explained the stoker; “and now the supply has given out. We kept the Milky Way till the last, hoping against hope, but this week we had to use it. We are running the furnaces now with the Magellan Clouds, but the quality is none of the best, and we'll want a fresh supply in a few hours.”

“Search the ends of Space then!” exclaimed Satan; “there must surely be any quantity of constellations left.”

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The stoker-devil shook his head sadly. “We've used 'em all up,” he replied. “Our cinder-heap reaches to the farthest depths.”

“Search that cinder-heap then!” cried Satan; “plenty of suns and constellations may have been thrown out carelessly.”

“No,” replied the stoker-devil despondently; “during the last million years the ashes have been carefully sifted, and all burnable parts have been returned to the furnaces.”

Satan ground his mighty teeth in despair. “This comes of damning too many souls,” he exclaimed. “I begin to think that I was far too active in the old days. If I had had any foresight at all I'd have let the parsons save all the souls they wanted. Here I am brought to beggary in my old age—burnt out of house and home by a lot of miserable souls who have not the common decency to thank me for giving them the chance. But I will not submit; I'll strain the universe through a hair-sieve before I give up the game. Here, you!—turn out ten thousand of those Australian miners we damned in the nineteenth century. Tell 'em to prospect all Space. Tell them I'll give threepence each for planets, and ninepence each for suns—in asbestos orders good for whisky at the refreshmentroom. And, while they are routing around, I'll see what I can find on my own account.”

At once the message clanged throughout hell, but before the order could be carried out Satan took a header into the depths, on a quest of his own. In a few seconds thousands of eager souls swarmed out on to the clinker-heap. There they were, gaunt and grim, seared by millions of years of searching fires, grilled for ages on the unmelting fire-bars of the inferno, racked and torn by the tireless torturers, and hideously disfigured by a thousand endless and unimaginable torments. But there they stood with the old prospecting fever still strong within them, and before them lay the biggest prospecting field ever offered to the sons of men. There lay an apparently duffered-out universe, with just a chance that somewhere in it were constellations every sun of which was worth a drink in the private bar of hell; and so, with a whoop that shook the grim portal of the inferno, they dashed into Space.

  ― 126 ―

But little they reckoned of the task before them. For days they wandered, that troop of disconsolate diggers, and many a billion miles they prospected without success. At last, when the search seemed almost hopeless, something huge and filmy hove in sight on the great black wall of starless Space. With a simultaneous rush the prospectors went for it, and, hooking themselves on by every available point, they dragged it, with a wild hurrah, through billions of miles of emptiness till they triumphantly dumped it at hell's gate, and sent it bodily down into the furnaces.

A stoker-imp rose up and thanked them, with tears in his eyes.

“Just in time, oh, just in time!” he exclaimed, in broken accents. “The weather prophet in the third gridiron has prophesied a white frost.”

But suddenly a mighty form spun up from the exterior darkness. It was Satan, returned from a fruitless search.

“I hear the roar of the furnaces,” he said; “what have you found?”

They told him.

“ ‘A filmy thing, floating in Space.’ Oh, fools!” he cried, “you have gone and burnt up Heaven. It won't last ten minutes. We are lost!”

And, sure enough, fifteen minutes later Hell froze over.