(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

After dinner and an evening of conversation, the narrator feels comfortable enough to ask his old friend Owen Aherne a question that has been troubling him for many years: For years Aherne has cared for nothing but theology and mysticism—why has he not followed through on his original vocation for the church? Aherne considers his answer, meditatively holding a glass of red wine in his hand, “its deep red light dyeing his long delicate fingers,” making him look as if he were “holding a flame in his naked hand.” As he waits for Aherne’s answer, the narrator reflects on the character of his friend. When the narrator and Aherne had been students in Paris, they had belonged to a group devoted to “speculations about alchemy and mysticism.” Aherne, it seems to the narrator, has in his beliefs “a fanciful hatred of all life,” and this hatred has ripened into a strange mélange of beliefs, in part self-created, in part borrowed, “that the beautiful arts were sent into the world to overthrow nations, and finally life herself, by sowing everywhere unlimited desires, like torches thrown into a burning city.” It seems to the narrator that Aherne is the sort of person for whom “there is no order, no finality, no contentment in this world.”

As the narrator so reflects, Aherne rises and offers to show the narrator the cause of his seeming loss of interest in the church and of his apparent reserve and indifference of recent years. He leads the narrator down a long corridor to his private chapel, passing engravings and portraits that Aherne has acquired on his travels, pictures depicting “enraptured faces of the angels of Francesca,” “sibyls of Michael Angelo,” seeming to hold an “incertitude, as of souls trembling between the excitement of the spirit and the excitement of the flesh,” and “faces like thin flames,” wrought by the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites. As he looks, “that long, grey, dim, empty, echoing passage [has] become to my eyes a vestibule of eternity.”

In the chapel, the narrator is shown the object that has changed Aherne’s life: On the altar is a bronze box that stands before six unlighted candles and an ebony crucifix. The box, decorated with “gods and demons, whose eyes are closed to signify an absorption in the inner light,” holds a secret book, the only surviving copy of a book written by Joachim of Flora, who had been an abbot in Cortale in the twelfth century. The book, Liber inducens in Evangelium aeternum, has been carefully hidden and guarded by generations of the family of Aretino after Pope Alexander IV had the original cast into the flames for its heretical views. Aherne has acquired the book from Giulio Aretano, an artist and a Cabalist. Aherne puts the book in the narrator’s hands, and the narrator turns the “gilded, many-coloured pages.” This book, claims Aherne, has “swept the commandments of the Father away,” and it “goes to the heart.” In it are the names of “great artists who made them graven things . . . and adored them and served them,” as well as “the names of the great wits who took the name of the Lord their God in vain.” It praises the “breakers...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)