|Английски оригинал||Перевод на български|
An Era Ends
by E. C. Tubb
He awoke to the sound of bells and for a delicious moment thought that he was young again and it was Sunday and the air was filled with the cheerful summons to prayer. Then he opened his eyes and stared into the pre-dawn darkness, at the hidden contours of his shabby room, at the illuminated face of the cheap alarm clock whose brassy clanging had aroused such poignant memories.
It was Sunday, that remained, but there would be no bells, no happy bands of worshipers wending their way to old, familiar buildings sanctified by time. There would be no organs lifting their multi-throated voices to the Glory of God. But it was Sunday and there would be a congregation and there would be a service. That much, at least, remained.
Tiredly the Reverend John Parish rose from his narrow bed. He was used to fatigue, of late it had seemed his natural state, and it was with physical relief that he knelt and, as he had every morning of his remembered life, commenced his day with prayer.
He did not pray aloud but continued softly within himself and, as always, he begged for guidance, for strength and humbleness and, above all, he prayed God to forgive those in need of forgiveness.
He was a long time on his knees and, when he rose, fatigue washed over him as if it were a tangible thing that he had to fight as a swimmer fought the waves. He had to pause for a while, leaning against the wall until strength returned and he could recommence the routine of the day.
The first light of the false dawn had illumined the window with a patch of featureless gray, the light touching the contents of the room and accentuating the poverty rather than softening its harshness.
Water stood in a cracked pitcher and he washed. Lathering his face and hands with a scrap of soap, shaving more by touch than actual sight and, when his toilet was done, dressing with painstaking care, the rusty black of his threadbare suit matching the cracked shoes and the shirt, which, though clean, was far from new.
He combed his hair, smoothing out the tangled locks that wreathed his head, the baldness of his natural tonsure rising like a dome of pink from a sea of gray. He placed a battered hat firmly over the baldness and then, his toilet complete, he checked the door to make certain it was locked, looked about the room to make sure that no spy-hole had been bored during the night and, from beneath a loose floorboard collected the things he had to take,
It was still early but even so the streets were not deserted. The streets of a large city are never wholly deserted. There are always the police, the restless, the apparently homeless who walk along the buildings, the people who walk as if they had definite errands, the still-awake population of the night before. He passed a cafe and his stomach sent urgent messages to his brain at the scent of coffee and food. He ignored the messages; it was not yet time to break his fast.
It was not time to linger either. There were riches in the city, soaring buildings and substantial homes, the well-fed citizens and easy living, which had bred tolerance were things of the past but the slums remained and the slums, old or nee, housed their own, peculiar form of life. Nasty life. Boys with the faces of men; girls with the eyes of women, children who surely must have been born mature. A different form of life to that he remembered and yet, was it so wholly different?
Were not all men beasts beneath their akin?
The judgment was too generalized, too sweeping, too unfair. He knew it and felt a momentary shame at having yielded to the bitterness of cynicism. All men were not the same. Even in this world there was tolerance and a rough kindness. A little, only a little, but even that showed that men could not be wholly bad as mud cannot be all dirt if it contains flecks of gold. And, if to that tolerance and kindness faith could be added, would not the world be reborn?
He stumbled and almost fell, his hand grasping his breast pocket, to safeguard that which rested within. There had been nothing to make him stumble; the pavement was free of obstruction, but he did not wonder at it. Often he stumbled and often he fell both without apparent cause. It, like the fatigue, had become a part of his life to be accepted without question.
He paused, leaning against the side of a building and, for the first time, discovered that he was not alone. Two men had followed him down the street, and now they stood watching him with covert glances, whispering each to the other, their eyes glinting like those of animals studying their prey.
He did not recognize them and, after the first glance, he did not look at them. He dared not look at them. Leaning against the wall he felt again the old, familiar impact of fear. It gripped him with a force that was stronger than himself, a wash of emotion which he could not resist. It was no stranger and yet repetition had not lessened its force. Always he felt the cold hand gripping his heart, the dryness of his mouth, the horrible, horrible tension in his stomach.
He did not like to feel the terror. He did not like feeling as if he were a criminal even though society had proscribed him as such and he carried that on his body, which, if discovered, would cause his death.
* * *
How long he remained leaning against the wall he did not know but, after a while, his heart ceased its hammering and some of the fear left him so that he was able to lift his head and look around. The men had gone and, aside from a woman entering the cafe, the street was deserted. Relieved he continued his journey.
Past the intersection where the warehouses stood like blind giants guarding their contents with invisible rays and invisible guards. Past the sear patch of ground ringed with red-painted warnings. Past grimed dwellings with papered windows and moldering brick, the scent of them an abomination, and past the abandoned shops boarded and the haven of rats. On to the intersection and then right and so past St. Andrew's where fire-scorched stone reared forlornly towards the sky.
His feet halted him there though he knew it was unwise and he leaned on a crumbling wall as he looked at the ruins. They were not unique. The churches had been the first to go. The spires and arches, the stained glass windows, the buttresses, the stone and wood all had dissolved in flame. Chapels and cathedrals, missions and churches, every building which bore a cross. None had escaped.
He had never quite recovered from the shock of it, the horror, the savage abruptness. Surely twenty-one centuries of tradition could not have counted for so little? Even now it still seemed incredible that the massive inertia of centuries could have been negated in so short a time. And yet, had it been so short a time?
He remembered back to when he had been young and that had been forty years ago when, in a world of change, one thing did not change. Customs could alter and the world could dwindle, the stars could be probed and the fires of hell itself be tamed for peace and war but God and the worship of God remained. It would always remain, something as eternal as the stars. It was the basis of his faith.
Dreaming, he stared at the ruins of his church.
There had been warnings of course, there were always warnings if only they could be recognized as such. Historians had pointed out that all societies obey the cycle of growth and decay. Sociologists had warned of the pendulum of extremes and the psychologists had pondered on the tensions of modern living, the lack of any firm belief.
And, above all there had been advertising and the fiction of success, which was no longer a contented heart but the acquisition of possessions, the display of status symbols, the cult of self so that humbleness and a reverence for God became alien to the modern way of life.
* * *
Leaning on the crumbling wall, his body warming to the light of the newly risen sun, the Reverend John Parish saw, not the ruins which gaped emptily towards the sky but, the church as it had been, tall and proud and heavy with the odor of sanctity. There had been a spire housing bells with a gilt weathercock at the topmost pinnacle and the four points of the compass provided for him to gauge the wind. There had been tall windows picturing in stained glass scenes from the Gospels so that, when the sun shone through them, rainbow patterns appeared on the ranked pews and the fluted stone of the columns.
There had been a choir too, sweet-voiced boys like angels in their cassocks and the thundering drone of the organ as it lifted its voice to the Glory of God. And there had been peace and a deep contentment and an absence of all worry and doubt.
But there had been vandals who slit the cushions and ripped the missals, who robbed the offertory boxes and carved the pews, who had scrawled vile obscenities on the walls and who had committed desecrations without end.
And there had been dwindling congregations and the marriages consecrated, few babes baptized, few young people confirmed. The church had become a vacant place with the voices of the choir ringing from the echoing arches and the footfalls of the parishioners loud as they walked to their places among the empty pews. Then it became impossible to recruit new boys for the choir so that it had to be abandoned and recorded singing replaced both it and the organ, better singing, perhaps, but lacking the human warmth and satisfaction which once had filled the church.
But still the awful power of anti-Christ had yet to be revealed.
It was indifference, they said; a sign of the times. It was natural in the scheme of things that there would be a swing to the other extreme. For centuries God and the worship of God had ruled the thoughts of men but science and cynicism had bred doubt and men no longer worshiped God or feared Him or reverenced His name.
A time of indifference, aggravated each generation, encouraged by the new objects of veneration, aided by the means of mass communication backed by the drum-beat of endless advertising which lauded everything material and never once advocated the spiritual side of life, never once mentioned God.
Then the Devil had smiled. The door of Hell cracked open and, for a while, the churches were full of desperate creatures pleading to the God they had ignored for help and protection. The door of Hell had opened wider and, when it finally closed, something of Hell itself remained behind so that the world would never be the same again and craters glowed where cities had sprawled and things too horrible to be called human had been born to parents maimed without outward sign of injury.
And God had taken the blame.
* * *
It was dangerous to linger too long; more dangerous to linger in the coils of memory even though they were a quarter of a century old now and a new generation crept where the old had strutted. Sighing he left the crumbling wall and continued down the street to the main intersection where a traffic control officer stood on his dais, the peep of his whistle shrill as he directed the pedal-cars, the cycles, the hand-pushed carts and the clopping hooves of proudly-owned horses.
There were cars too, of course, electric powered and those with the old, remembered engines, but they were few as yet, almost as few as the airplanes, which droned at times across the skies or the great dirigibles that coasted silently along like monstrous whales floundering in a new environment.
The taste of Hell had not totally destroyed all that man had built but there been changes and much that was known could no longer be applied because the things necessary for their application could no longer be obtained in sufficient quantity. But there was food and a degree of medical attention. There were schools and law of a kind and a way of life that was not that of the beast. But he could not call it civilization. Not true civilization. That could never be until it had been blessed by the knowledge of God and these people, these men and women and children, so superficially human, had denied their Creator.
A hauler, a collared mutant. stumbled as he watched and the hiss of the driver's whip drew blood from the back of the grotesque thing. The faces of the people around him remained stolid at the spectacle of cruelty.
He was not surprised. Despite appearances this collection of individuals was not a true civilization. No true civilization could exist until it had been blessed by the knowledge of God and these people, so superficially human, had denied their Creator. The memory of that terrible time was not easily to be forgotten.
The Reverend John Parish did not forget. He walked as he had walked each Sunday for the past twenty years, his feet carrying him with a knowledge of their own so that, as he walked, his mind drifted on other things. He thought of the time when Hell disguised as war, had touched the world and men had pleaded with their Savior and, when no miracle had immediately occurred, they had turned and sought a scapegoat in what they had once worshiped.
They were not wholly to blame. An animal, blind with agony, cannot be blamed for what it does. Civilization, torn and wounded almost until death, shed tolerance and kindness, gentleness and understanding. There had no longer been room for the gentle virtues and the Golden Rule. There had only been room for self and the law of the jungle. Something had to take the blame.
Not man himself; for whoever accepts blame? Not the governments for they no longer existed and certainly not the blind self-lust and self-gratification of the individual. Individuals were not big enough to suffer as they should. Humanity needed something as large as its hate, as huge as its sin.
So they had burned the churches. They had reviled God and those who served God. They had slaughtered the innocents and. in blood, had sought to wash away their guilt. God had been blamed for the failure of men to live by His teachings. To serve Him was forbidden. And now, in this world, there was only hate and death and degradation where once there had been reverence and respect and worship.
* * *
It was growing late, the sun bright in the sky, the streets thronged now with people and he realized that he had lingered longer than he should, had leaned, dreaming, on the ruined wall by the ruined church when he should have been walking, and let his thoughts wander as they so often did and all to the same end.
He stepped out more briskly and came to the market place where hand-made goods were displayed on open stalls together with small packets of herbs and mounds of certified produce. An inspector wandered the stalls, his counter slung over his shoulder and an old man sat beneath a blackboard teaching a handful of children the rudiments of arithmetic.