Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts , by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Oceanus

My Dear Violet — So you “gather from the tone of two or three recent letters that my spirit is creeping back to light and warmth again”? Well, after a fashion you are right. I shall never laugh again as I used to laugh before Harry’s death. The taste has gone out of that carelessness, and I turn even from the remembrance of it. But I can be cheerful, with a cheerfulness which has found the centre of gravity. I am myself again, as people say. After months of agitation in what seemed to be chaos the lost atom has dropped back to its place in the scheme of things, and even aspires (poor mite!) to do its infinitesimal business intelligently. So might a mote in a sunbeam feel itself at one with God!

But when you assume that my recovery has been a gradual process, you are wrong. You will think me more than ever deranged; but I assure you that it has been brought about, not by long strivings, but suddenly — without preparation of mine —and by the immediate hand of our dead brother.

Yes; you shall have the whole tale. The first effect of the news of Harry’s death in October last was simply to stun me. You may remember how once, years ago when we were children, we rode home together across the old Racecourse after a long day’s skating, our skates swinging at our saddle-bows; how Harry challenged us to a gallop; and how, midway, the roan mare slipped down neck over crop on the frozen turf and hurled me clean against the face of a stone dyke. I had been thrown from horseback more than once before, but somehow had always found the earth fairly elastic. So I had griefs before Harry died and took some rebound of hope from each: but that cast repeated in a worse degree the old shock — the springless brutal jar — of the stone dyke. With him the sun went out of my sky.

I understand that this torpor is quite common with men and women suddenly bereaved. I believe that a whole week passed before my brain recovered any really vital motion; and then such feeble thought as I could exert was wholly occupied with the desperate stupidity of the whole affair. If God were indeed shaping the world to any end, if any design of His underlay the activities of men, what insensate waste to quench such a heart and brain as Harry’s! — to nip, as it seemed out of mere blundering wantonness, a bud which had begun to open so generously: to sacrifice that youth and strength, that comeliness, that enthusiasm, and all for nothing! Had some campaign claimed him, had he been spent to gain a citadel or defend a flag, I had understood. But that he should be killed on a friendly mission; attacked in ignorance by those East Coast savages while bearing gifts to their king; deserted by the porters whose comfort (on their own confession) he had studied throughout the march; left to die, to be tortured, mutilated — and all for no possible good: these things I could not understand. At the end he might have escaped; but as he caught hold of his saddle by the band between the holsters, it parted: it was not leather, but faced paper, the job of some cheating contractor. I thought of this, too. And Harry had been through Chitral!

But though a man may hate, he cannot easily despise God for long. “He is great — but wasteful,” said the American. We are the dust on His great hands, and fly as He claps them carelessly in the pauses of His work. Yet this theory would not do at all: for the unlucky particles are not dust, not refuse, but exquisite and exquisitely fashioned, designed to live, and to every small function of life adapted with the minutest care. There were nights indeed when, walking along the shore where we had walked together on the night before Harry left England and looking from the dark waters which divided me from his grave up to the nightly moon and to the stars around her, I could well believe God wasteful of little things. Sirius flashing low, Orion’s belt with the great nebula swinging like a pendant of diamonds; the ruby stars, Betelgueux and Aldebaran — my eyes went up beyond these to Perseus shepherding the Kids westward along the Milky way. From the right Andromeda flashed signals to him: and above sat Cassiopeia, her mother, resting her jewelled wrists on the arms of her throne. Low in the east Jupiter trailed his satellites in the old moon’s path. As they all moved, silent, looking down on me out of the hollow spaces of the night, I could believe no splendid waste too costly for their perfection: and the Artificer who hung them there after millions of years of patient effort, if more intelligible than a God who produced them suddenly at will, certainly not less divine. But walking the same shore by daylight I recognised that the shells, the mosses, the flowers I trampled on, were, each in its way, as perfect as those great stars: that on these — and on Harry — as surely as on the stars — God had spent, if not infinite pains, then at least so superlative a wisdom that to conceive of them as wastage was to deny the mind which called them forth.

There they were: and that He who had skill to create them could blunder in using them was simply incredible.

But this led to worse: for having to admit the infallible design, I now began to admire it as an exquisite scheme of evil, and to accuse God of employing supreme knowledge and skill to gratify a royal lust of cruelty. For a month and more this horrible theory justified itself in all innocent daily sights. Throughout my country walks I “saw blood.” I heard the rabbit run squeaking before the weasel; I watched the butcher crow working steadily down the hedge. If I turned seaward I looked beneath the blue and saw the dog-fish gnawing on the whiting. If I walked in the garden I surprised the thrush dragging worms from the turf, the cat slinking on the nest, the spider squatting in ambush. Behind the rosy face of every well-nourished child I saw a lamb gazing up at the butcher’s knife. My dear Violet, that was a hideous time!

And just then by chance a book fell into my hands — Lamartine’s Chute d’un Ange. Do you know the Seventh and Tenth Visions of that poem, which describe the favourite amusements of the Men-gods? Before the Deluge, beyond the rude tents of the nomad shepherds, there rose city upon city of palaces built of jasper and porphyry, splendid and utterly corrupt; inhabited by men who called themselves gods and explored the subtleties of all sciences to minister to their vicious pleasures. At ease on soft couches, in hanging gardens set with fountains, these beings feasted with every refinement of cruelty. Kneeling slaves were their living tables; while for their food —

Tous les oiseaux de l’air, tous les poissons de l’onde,

Tout ce qui vole ou nage ou rampe dans le monde,

Mourant pour leur plaisir des plus cruels trepas

De sanglantes savours composent leurs repas . . . .

In these lines I believed that I discerned the very God of the universe, the God whom men worship —

Dans les infames jeux de leur divin loisir

Le supplice de l’homme est leur premier plaisir.

Pour que leur oeil feroce a l’envi s’en repaisse

Des bourreaux devant eux en immolent sans cesse.

Tantot ils font lutter, dans des combats affreux,

L’homme contre la brute et les hommes entre eux,

Aux longs ruisseaux de sang qui coulent de la veine,

Aux palpitations des membres sur l’arene,

Se levant a demi de leurs lits de repos

Des frissons de plaisir fremissent sur leurs peaux.

Le cri de la torture est leur douce harmonie,

Et leur oeil dans son oeil boit sa lente agonie.

I charged the Supreme Power with a cruelty deliberate, ruthless, serene. Nero the tyrant once commanded a representation in grim earnest of the Flight of Icarus; and the unhappy boy who took the part, at his first attempt to fly, fell headlong beside the Emperor’s couch and spattered him with blood and brains. For the Emperor, says Suetonius, perraro praesidere, ceterum accubans, parvis primum foraminibus, deinde toto podio adaperto, spectare consuerat. So I believed that on the stage of this world men agonised for the delight of one cruel intelligence which watched from behind the curtain of a private box.

2

In this unhappy condition of mind, then, I was lying in my library chair here at Sevenhays, at two o’clock on the morning of January 4th. I had just finished another reading of the Tenth Vision and had tossed my book into the lap of an armchair opposite. Fire and lamp were burning brightly. The night outside was still and soundless, with a touch of frost.

I lay there, retracing in thought the circumstances of Harry’s last parting from me, and repeating to myself a scrap here and there from the three letters he wrote on his way — the last of them, full of high spirits, received a full three weeks after the telegram which announced his death. There was a passage in this last letter describing a wonderful ride he had taken alone and by moonlight on the desert; a ride (he protested) which wanted nothing of perfect happiness but me, his friend, riding beside him to share his wonder. There was a sentence which I could not recall precisely, and I left my chair and was crossing the room towards the drawer in the writing-table where I kept his letters, when I heard a trampling of hoofs on the gravel outside, and then my Christian name called — with distinctness, but not at all loudly.

I went to the window, which was unshuttered; drew up the blind and flung up the sash. The moon, in its third quarter and about an hour short of its meridian, shone over the deodars upon the white gravel. And there, before the front door, sat Harry on his sorrel mare Vivandiere, holding my own Grey Sultan ready bridled and saddled. He was dressed in his old khaki riding suit, and his face, as he sat askew in his saddle and looked up towards my window, wore its habitual and happy smile.

Now, call this and what follows a dream, vision, hallucination, what you will; but understand, please, that from the first moment, so far as I considered the matter at all, I had never the least illusion that this was Harry in flesh and blood. I knew quite well all the while that Harry was dead and his body in his grave. But, soul or phantom — whatever relation to Harry this might bear — it had come to me, and the great joy of that was enough for the time. There let us leave the question. I closed the window, went upstairs to my dressing-room, drew on my riding-boots and overcoat, found cap, gloves, and riding-crop, and descended to the porch.

Harry, as I shall call him, was still waiting there on the off side of Grey Sultan, the farther side from the door. There could be no doubt, at any rate, that the grey was real horseflesh and blood, though he seemed unusually quiet after two days in stall. Harry freed him as I mounted, and we set off together at a walk, which we kept as far as the gate.

Outside we took the westward road, and our horses broke into a trot. As yet we had not exchanged a word; but now he asked a question or two about his people and his friends; kindly, yet most casually, as one might who returns after a week’s holidaying. I answered as well as I could, with trivial news of their health. His mother had borne the winter better than usual — to be sure, there had been as yet no cold weather to speak of; but she and Ethel intended, I believed, to start for the south of France early in February. He inquired about you. His comments were such as a man makes on hearing just what he expects to hear, or knows beforehand. And for some time it seemed to be tacitly taken for granted between us that I should ask him no questions.

“As for me —” I began, after a while.

He checked the mare’s pace a little. “I know,” he said, looking straight ahead between her ears; then, after a pause, “it has been a bad time for you, You are in a bad way altogether. That is why I came.”

“But it was for you!” I blurted out. “Harry, if only I had known why you were taken — and what it was to you!

He turned his face to me with the old confident comforting smile.

“Don’t you trouble about that. That’s nothing to make a fuss about. Death?” he went on musing — our horses had fallen to a walk again — “It looks you in the face a moment: you put out your hands: you touch — and so it is gone. My dear boy, it isn’t for us that you need worry.”

“For whom, then?”

“Come,” said he, and he shook Vivandiere into a canter.

3

I cannot remember precisely at what point in our ride the country had ceased to be familiar. But by-and-by we were climbing the lower slopes of a great down which bore no resemblance to the pastoral country around Sevenhays. We had left the beaten road for short turf — apparently of a copper-brown hue, but this may have been the effect of the moonlight. The ground rose steadily, but with an easy inclination, and we climbed with the wind at our backs; climbed, as it seemed, for an hour, or maybe two, at a footpace, keeping silence. The happiness of having Harry beside me took away all desire for speech.

This at least was my state of mind as we mounted the long lower slopes of the down. But in time the air, hitherto so exhilarating, began to oppress my lungs, and the tranquil happiness to give way to a vague discomfort and apprehension.

“What is this noise of water running?”

I reined up Grey Sultan as I put the question. At the same moment it occurred to me that this sound of water, distant and continuous, had been running in my ear for a long while.

Harry, too, came to a halt. With a sweep of the arm that embraced the dim landscape around and ahead, he quoted softly —

en detithei potamoio mega spenos Okeanoio

antyga par pymaten sakeos pyka poietoio . . . .

and was silent again.

I recalled at once and distinctly the hot summer morning ten years back, when we had prepared that passage of the Eighteenth Book together in our study at Clifton; I at the table, Harry lolling in the cane-seated armchair with the Liddell and Scott open on his knees; outside, the sunny close and the fresh green of the lime-trees.

Now that I looked more attentively the bare down, on which we climbed like flies, did indeed resemble a vast round shield, about the rim of which this unseen water echoed. And the resemblance grew more startling when, a mile or so farther on our way, as the grey dawn overtook us, Harry pointed upwards and ahead to a small boss or excrescence now lifting itself above the long curve of the horizon.

At first I took it for a hummock or tumulus. Then, as the day whitened about us, I saw it to be a building — a tall, circular barrack not unlike the Colosseum. A question shaped itself on my lips, but something in Harry’s manner forbade it. His gaze was bent steadily forward, and I kept my wonder to myself, and also the oppression of spirit which had now grown to something like physical torture.

When first the great barrack broke into sight we must have been at least two miles distant. I kept my eyes fastened on it as we approached, and little by little made out the details of its architecture. From base to summit — which appeared to be roofless — six courses of many hundred arches ran around the building, one above the other; and between each pair a course, as it seemed, of plain worked stone, though I afterwards found it to be sculptured in low relief. The arches were cut in deep relief and backed with undressed stone. The lowest course of all, however, was quite plain, having neither arches nor frieze; but at intervals corresponding to the eight major points of the compass — so far as I who saw but one side of it could judge — pairs of gigantic stone figures supported archways pierced in the wall; or sluices, rather, since from every archway but one a full stream of water issued and poured down the sides of the hill. The one dry archway was that which faced us with open gate, and towards which Harry led the way; for oppression and terror now weighted my hand as with lead upon Grey Sultan’s rein.

Harry, however, rode forward resolutely, dismounted almost in the very shadow of the great arch, and waited, smoothing his mare’s neck. But for the invitation in his eyes, which were solemn, yet without a trace of fear, I had never dared that last hundred yards. For above the rush of waters I heard now a confused sound within the building — the thud and clanking of heavy machinery, and at intervals a human groan; and looking up I saw that the long friezes in bas-relief represented men and women tortured and torturing with all conceivable variety of method and circumstance — flayed, racked, burned, torn asunder, loaded with weights, pinched with hot irons, and so on without end. And it added to the horror of these sculptures that while the limbs and even the dress of each figure were carved with elaborate care and nicety of detail, the faces of all — of those who applied the torture and of those who looked on, as well as of the sufferers themselves — were left absolutely blank. On the same plan the two Titans beside the great archway had no faces. The sculptor had traced the muscles of each belly in a constriction of anguish, and had suggested this anguish again in moulding the neck, even in disposing the hair of the head; but the neck supported, and the locks fell around, a space of smooth stone without a feature.

Harry allowed me no time to feed on these horrors. Signing to me to dismount and leave Grey Sultan at the entrance, he led me through the long archway or tunnel. At the end we paused again, he watching, while I drew difficult breath . . . .

I saw a vast amphitheatre of granite, curving away on either hand and reaching up, tier on tier, till the tiers melted in the grey sky overhead. The lowest tier stood twenty feet above my head; yet curved with so lordly a perspective that on the far side of the arena, as I looked across, it seemed almost level with the ground; while the human figures about the great archway yonder were diminished to the size of ants about a hole . . . For there were human figures busy in the arena, though not a soul sat in any of the granite tiers above. A million eyes had been less awful than those empty benches staring down in the cold dawn; bench after bench repeating the horror of the featureless carvings by the entrance-gate — repeating it in series without end, and unbroken, save at one point midway along the semicircle on my right, where the imperial seat stood out, crowned like a catafalque with plumes of purple horse-hair, and screened close with heavy purple hangings. I saw these curtains shake once or twice in the morning wind.

The floor of this amphitheatre I have spoken of as an arena; but as a matter of fact it was laid with riveted sheets of copper that recalled the dead men’s shelves in the Paris morgue. The centre had been raised some few feet higher than the circumference, or possibly the whole floor took its shape from the rounded hill of which it was the apex; and from an open sluice immediately beneath the imperial throne a flood of water gushed with a force that carried it straight to this raised centre, over which it ran and rippled, and so drained back into the scuppers at the circumference. Before reaching the centre it broke and swirled around a row of what appeared to be tall iron boxes or cages, set directly in face of the throne. But for these ugly boxes the whole floor was empty. To and from these the little human figures were hurrying, and from these too proceeded the thuds and panting and the frequent groans that I had heard outside.

While I stood and gazed, Harry stepped forward into the arena. “This also?” I whispered.

He nodded, and led the way over the copper floor, where the water ran high as our ankles and again was drained off, until little dry spaces grew like maps upon the surface, and in ten seconds were flooded again. He led me straight to the cages, and I saw that while the roof and three sides of these were of sheet iron, the fourth side, which faced the throne, lay open. And I saw — in the first cage, a man scourged with rods; in the second, a body twisted on the rack; in the third, a woman with a starving babe, and a fellow that held food to them and withdrew it quickly (the torturers wore masks on their faces, and whenever blood flowed some threw handfuls of sawdust, and blood and sawdust together were carried off by the running water); in the fourth cage, a man tied, naked and helpless, whom a masked torturer pelted with discs of gold, heavy and keen-edged; in the fifth a brasier with irons heating, and a girl’s body crouched in a corner —

“I will see no more!” I cried, and turned towards the great purple canopy. High over it the sun broke yellow on the climbing tiers of seats. “Harry! someone is watching behind those curtains! Is it — HE?”

Harry bent his head.

“But this is all that I believed! This is Nero, and ten times worse than Nero! Why did you bring me here?” I flung out my hand towards the purple throne, and finding myself close to a fellow who scattered sawdust with both hands, made a spring to tear his mask away. But Harry stretched out an arm.

“That will not help you,” he said. “The man has no face.”

“No face!”

“He once had a face, but it has perished. His was the face of these sufferers. Look at them.”

I looked from cage to cage, and now saw that indeed all these sufferers — men and women — had but one face: the same wrung brow, the same wistful eyes, the same lips bitten in anguish. I knew the face. We all know it.

“His own Son! O devil rather than God!” I fell on my knees in the gushing water and covered my eyes.

“Stand up, listen and look!” said Harry’s voice.

“What can I see? He hides behind that curtain.”

“And the curtain?”

“It shakes continually.”

That is with His sobs. Listen! What of the water?”

“It runs from the throne and about the floor. It washes off the blood.”

“That water is His tears. It flows hence down the hill, and washes all the shores of earth.”

Then as I stood silent, conning the eddies at my feet, for the first time Harry took my hand.

“Learn this,” he said. “There is no suffering in the world but ultimately comes to be endured by God.”

Saying this, he drew me from the spot; gently, very gently led me away; but spoke again as we were about to pass into the shadow of the arch —

“Look once back: for a moment only.”

I looked. The curtains of the imperial seat were still drawn close, but in a flash I saw the tiers beside it, and around, and away up to the sunlit crown of the amphitheatre, thronged with forms in white raiment. And all these forms leaned forward and bowed their faces on their arms and wept.

So we passed out beneath the archway. Grey Sultan stood outside, and as I mounted him the gate clashed behind . . . .

4

I turned as it clashed. And the gate was just the lodge-gate of Sevenhays. And Grey Sultan was trampling the gravel of our own drive. The morning sun slanted over the laurels on my right, and while I wondered, the stable clock struck eight.

The rest I leave to you; nor shall try to explain. I only know that, vision or no vision, my soul from that hour has gained a calm it never knew before. The sufferings of my fellows still afflict me; but always, if I stand still and listen, in my own room, or in a crowded street, or in a waste spot among the moors, I can hear those waters moving round the world — moving on their “priest-like task “— those lustral divine tears which are Oceanus.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/q/quiller-couch/arthur_thomas/old-fires-and-profitable-ghosts/chapter1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:15