Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter One

The Magus Zoroaster

“It undoubtedly needs”, Peter Stanhope said, “a final pulling together, but there’s hardly time for that before July, and if you’re willing to take it as it is, why-” He made a gesture of presentation and dropped his eyes, thus missing the hasty reciprocal gesture of gratitude with which Mrs. Parry immediately replied on behalf of the dramatic culture of Battle Hill. Behind and beyond her the culture, some thirty faces, unessentially exhibited to each other by the May sunlight, settled to attention-naturally, efficiently, critically, solemnly, reverently. The grounds of the Manor House expanded beyond them; the universal sky sustained the whole. Peter Stanhope began to read his play.

Battle Hill was one of the new estates which had been laid out after the war. It lay about thirty miles north of London and took its title from the more ancient name of the broad rise of ground which it covered. It had a quiet ostentation of comfort and culture. The poor, who had created it, had been as far as possible excluded, nor (except as hired servants) were they permitted to experience the bitterness of others’ stairs. The civil wars which existed there, however bitter, were conducted with all bourgeois propriety. Politics, religion, art, science, grouped themselves, and courteously competed for numbers and reputation. This summer, however, had seen a spectacular triumph of drama, for it had become known that Peter Stanhope had consented to allow the restless talent of the Hill to produce his latest play.

He was undoubtedly the most famous inhabitant. He was a cadet of that family which had owned the Manor House, and he had bought it back from more recent occupiers, and himself settled in it before the war. He had been able to do this because he was something more than a cadet of good family, being also a poet in the direct English line, and so much after the style of his greatest predecessor that he made money out of poetry. His name was admired by his contemporaries and respected by the young. He had even imposed modern plays in verse on the London theatre, and two of them tragedies at that, with a farce or two, and histories for variation and pleasure. He was the kind of figure who might be more profitable to his neighbourhood dead than alive; dead, he would have given it a shrine; alive, he deprecated worshippers. The young men at the estate office made a refined publicity out of his privacy; the name of Peter Stanhope would be whispered without comment. He endured the growing invasion with a great deal of good humour, and was content to see the hill of his birth become a suburb of the City, as in another sense it would always be. There was, in that latest poetry, no contention between the presences of life and of death; so little indeed that there had been a contention in the Sunday Times whether Stanhope were a pessimist or an optimist. He himself said, in reply to an interviewer’s question, that he was an optimist and hated it.

Stanhope, though the most glorious, was not the only notorious figure of the Hill. There was Mr. Lawrence Wentworth, who was the most distinguished living authority on military history (perhaps excepting Mr. Aston Moffatt). Mr. Wentworth was not in the garden on that afternoon. Mrs. Catherine Parry was; it was she who would produce the play, as in many places and at many times she had produced others. She sat near Stanhope now, almost as tall as he, and with more active though not brighter eyes. They were part of that presence which was so necessary to her profession. Capacity which, in her nature, had reached the extreme Of active life, seemed in him to have entered the contemplative, so much had his art become a thing of his soul. Where, in their own separate private affairs, he interfered so little as almost to seem inefficient, she was so efficient as almost to seem interfering.

In the curve of women and men beyond her, other figures, less generally famous, sat or lay as the depth of their chairs induced them. There were rising young men, and a few risen and retired old. There were ambitious young women and sullen young women and loquacious young women. They were all attentive, though, as a whole, a little disappointed. They had understood that Mr. Stanhope had been writing a comedy, and had hoped for a modern comedy. When he had been approached, however, he had been easy but firm. He had been playing with a pastoral; if they would like a pastoral, it was very much at their service. Hopes and hints of modern comedies were unrealized: it was the pastoral or nothing. They had to be content. He consented to read it to them; he would not do more. He declined to make suggestions for the cast; he declined to produce. He would like, for his own enjoyment, to come to some of the rehearsals, but he made it clear that he had otherwise no wish to interfere. Nothing-given the necessity of a pastoral-could be better; the production would have all the advantage of his delayed death without losing any advantage of his prolonged life. As this became clear, the company grew reconciled. They gazed and listened, while from the long lean figure, outstretched in its deck-chair, there issued the complex intonation of great verse. Never negligible, Stanhope was often neglected; he was everyone’s second thought, but no one’s first. The convenience of all had determined this afternoon that he should be the first, and his neat mass of grey hair, his vivid glance, that rose sometimes from the manuscript, and floated down the rows, and sank again, his occasional friendly gesture that seemed about to deprecate, but always stopped short, received the concentration of his visitors, and of Mrs. Parry, the chief of his visitors.

It became clear to Mrs. Parry as the afternoon and the voice went on, that the poet had been quite right when he had said that the play needed Pulling together. “It’s all higgledy-piggledy,” she said to herself, using a word which a friend had once applied to a production of the Tempest, and, in fact to the Tempest itself. Mrs, Parry thought that this pastoral was in some Ways, rather like the Tempest. Mr. Stanhope, of course, was not as good as Shakespeare, because Shakespeare was the greatest English poet, so that Stanhope wasn’t. But there was a something. To begin with, it had no title beyond A Pastoral. That was unsatisfactory. Then the Plot was incredibly loose. it was of no particular time and no particular place, and to any cultured listener it seemed to have little bits of everything and everybody put in at odd moments. The verse was undoubtedly Stanhope’s own, of his latest, most heightened, and most epigrammatic style, but now and then all kinds of reminiscences moved in it. Once, during the second act, the word Pastiche floated through Mrs. Parry’s mind, but went away again on her questioning whether a Pastiche would be worth the trouble of Production. There was a Grand Duke in it who had a beautiful daughter, and this daughter either escaped from the palace or was abducted — anyhow, she came into the power of a number of brigands; and then there was a woodcutter’s son who frequently burned leaves, and he and the princess fell in love, and there were two farmers who were at odds, and the Grand Duke turned up in disguise, first in a village and then in the forest, through which also wandered an escaped bear, who spoke the most Complex verse, excepting the Chorus. The Chorus had no kind of other name; at first Mrs. Parry thought they might be villagers, then, since they were generally present in the forest, she thought they might be trees, or perhaps (with a vague reminiscence of Comus) spirits. Stanhope had not been very helpful; he had alluded to them as an experiment. By the end of the reading, it was clear to Mrs. Parry that it was very necessary to decide what exactly this Chorus was to be.

She had discouraged discussion of the play during the intervals between the four acts, and as soon as it was over tea was served. If, however, the poet hoped to get away from discussion by means of tea he was mistaken. There was a little hesitation over the correct word; fantastic was dangerous, and poetic both unpopular and supererogatory, though both served for variations on idyllic, which was Mrs. Parry’s choice and won by lengths. As she took her second cup of tea, however, she began to close. She said: “Yes, idyllic, Mr. Stanhope, and so significant!”

“It’s very good of you,” Stanhope murmured. “But you see I was right about revision — the plot must seem very loose.”

Mrs. Parry waved the plot up into benevolence. “But there are a few points,” she went on. “The Chorus now. I don’t think I follow the Chorus.”

“The Chorus could be omitted,” Stanhope said. “It’s not absolutely necessary to a presentation.”

Before Mrs. Parry could answer, a young woman named Adela Hunt, sitting close by, leant forward. She was the leader of the younger artistic party, who were not altogether happy about Mrs. Parry. Adela had some thoughts of taking up production herself as her life-work, and it would have been a great advantage to have started straight away with Peter Stanhope. But her following was not yet strong enough to deal with Mrs. Parry’s reputation. She was determined, however, if possible, to achieve a kind of collaboration by means of correction. “O, we oughtn’t to omit anything, ought we?” she protested. “A work of art can’t spare anything that’s a part of it.”

“My dear,” Mrs. Parry said, “you must consider your audience. What will the audience make of the Chorus?”

“It’s for them to make what they can of it,” Adela answered. “We can only give them a symbol. Art’s always symbolic, isn’t it?”

Mrs. Parry pursed her lips. “I wouldn’t say symbolic exactly,” she said slowly. “It has a significance, of course, and you’ve got to convey that significance to the audience. We want to present it — to interpret.”

As she paused, distracted by the presentation by the poet of two kinds of sandwiches, Adela broke in again.

“But, Mrs. Parry, how can one interpret a symbol? One can only mass it. It’s all of a piece, and it’s the total effect that creates the symbolical force.”

“Significant, not symbolical,” said Mrs. Parry firmly. “You mustn’t play down to your audience, but you mustn’t play away from them either. You must”— she gesticulated “intertwine . . . harmonize. So you must make it easy for them to get into harmony. That’s what’s wrong with a deal of modern art; it refuses — it doesn’t establish equilibrium with its audience or what not. In a pastoral play you must have equilibrium.”

“But the equilibrium’s in the play,” Adela urged again, “a balance of masses. Surely that’s what drama is-a symbolical contrast of masses.”

“Well,” Mrs. Parry answered with infuriating tolerance, “I suppose you might call it that. But it’s more effective to think of it as significant equilibrium-especially for a pastoral. However, don’t let’s be abstract. The question is, what’s to be done about the Chorus? Had we better keep it in or leave it out? Which would you prefer, Mr. Stanhope?”

“I should prefer it in, if you ask me,” Stanhope said politely. “But not to inconvenience the production.”

“It seems to be in the forest so often,” Mrs. Parry mused, dismissing cake. “There’s the distant song in the first act, when the princess goes away from the palace, and the choric dialogue when. . . . It isn’t Dryads, is it?”

A friend of Adela’s, a massive and superb young man of twenty-five, offered a remark. “Dryads would rather wreck the eighteenth century, wouldn’t they?”

“Watteau,” said a young lady near Adela. “You could have them period.”

Mrs. Parry looked at her approvingly. “Exactly, my dear,’ she said. “A very charming fantasy it might be; we must take care it isn’t precious — only period. But, Mr. Stanhope, you haven’t told us — are they Dryads?”

“Actually,” Stanhope answered, “as I told you, it’s more an experiment than anything else. The main thing is — was — that they are non-human.”

“Spirits?” said the Watteau young lady with a trill of pleasure.

“If you like,” said Stanhope, “only not spiritual. Alive, but with a different life-even from the princess.”

“Irony?” Adela exclaimed. “It’s a kind of comment, isn’t it, Mr. Stanhope, on futility? The forest and everything, and the princess and her lover — so transitory.”

Stanhope shook his head. There was a story, invented by himself, that The Times had once sent a representative to ask for explanations about a new play, and that Stanhope, in his efforts to explain it, had found after four hours that he had only succeeded in reading it completely through aloud: “Which,” he maintained, “was the only way of explaining it.”

“No,” he said now, “not irony. I think perhaps you’d better cut them out.”

There was a moment’s pause. “But we can’t do that, Mr. Stanhope,” said a voice; “they’re important to the poetry, aren’t they?” it was the voice of another young woman, sitting behind Adela. Her name was Pauline Anstruther, and, compared with Adela, she was generally silent. Now, after her quick question, she added hastily, “I mean-they come in when the princess and the wood-cutter come together, don’t they?” Stanhope looked at her, and she felt as if his eyes had opened suddenly. He said, more slowly:

“In a way, but they needn’t. We could just make it chance.”

“I don’t think that would be nearly as satisfactory,” Mrs. Parry said. “I begin to see my way — the trees perhaps — leaves — to have the leaves of the wood all so helpful to the young people — so charming!”

“It’s a terribly sweet idea,” said the Watteau young lady. “And so true too!”

Pauline, who was sitting next her, said in an undertone: “True?”

“Don’t you think so?” Watteau, whose actual name was Myrtle Fox, asked. “It’s what I always feel-about trees and flowers and leaves and so on — they’re so friendly. Perhaps you don’t notice it so much; I’m rather mystic about nature. Like Wordsworth. I should love to spend days out with nothing but the trees and the leaves and the wind. Only somehow one never seems to have time. But I do believe they’re all breathing in with us, and it’s such a comfort-here, where there are so many trees. Of course, we’ve only to sink into ourselves to find peace — and trees and clouds and so on all help us. One never need be unhappy. Nature’s so terribly good. Don’t you think so, Mr. Stanhope?”

Stanhope was standing by, silent, while Mrs. Parry communed with her soul and with one or two of her neighbours on the possibilities of dressing the Chorus. He turned his head and answered, “That Nature is terribly good? Yes, Miss Fox. You do mean ‘terribly’?”

“Why, certainly,” Miss Fox said. “Terribly — dreadfully — very.”

“Yes,” Stanhope said again. “Very. Only — you must forgive me; it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say ‘terribly’ I think I mean ‘full of terror’. A dreadful goodness.”

“I don’t see how goodness can be dreadful,” Miss Fox said, with a shade of resentment in her voice. “If things are good they’re not terrifying, are they?”

“It was you who said ‘terribly’,” Stanhope reminded her with a smile, “I only agreed.”

“And if things are terrifying,” Pauline put in, her eyes half closed and her head turned away as if she asked a casual question rather of the world than of him, “can they be good?”

He looked down on her. “Yes, surely,” he said, with more energy. “Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?”

“We’ll have them in shades of green then,” Mrs. Parry broke in, “light to darkg with rich gold sashes and embroidery running all over like twigs, and each one carrying a conventionalized bough — different lengths, I think. Dark gold stockings.”

“To suggest the trunks?” asked Adela’s friend, Hugh Prescott. @

“Quite,” Mrs. Parry said, and then hesitated. “I’m not sure — perhaps we’d better keep the leaf significances. when they’re still — of course they could stand with their legs twined. . . . ”

“What, with one another’s?” Adela asked in a conscious amazement.

“My dear child, don’t be absurd,” Mrs. Parry said. “Each pair of legs just crossed, so.”— she interlaced her own.

“I could never stand still like that,” Miss Fox said, with great conviction.

“You’d have your arms stretched out to People’s shoulders on each side,” Mrs. Parry said dubiously, “and a little gentle swaying wouldn’t be inappropriate. But perhaps we’d better not risk it. Better have green stockings — we can manage some lovely groupings. Could we call them ‘Chorus of Leaf–Spirits’, Mr. Stanhope?”

“Sweet!” said Miss Fox. Adela, leaning back to Hugh Prescott, said in a very low voice, “I told you, Hugh, she’ll ruin the whole thing. She’s got no idea of mass. she ought to block it violently and leave it without a name. I wouldn’t even have ‘Chorus’. I hope he won’t give way, but he’s rather weak.”

However, Stanhope was, in the politest language, declining to have anything of the sort. “Call it the Chorus,” he said, “or if you like I’ll try and find a name for the leader, and the rest can just dance and sing. But I’m afraid ‘Leaf–Spirits’ would be misleading.”

“What about’Chorus of Nature–Powers’?” asked Miss Fox, but Stanhope only said, smiling, “You will try and make the trees friendly,” which no one quite understood, and shook his head again.

Prescott asked: “Incidentally, I suppose they will be women?”

Mrs. Parry had said, “O, of course, Mr. Prescott,” before the question reached her brain. When it did, she added, “At least . . . I naturally took it for granted. . . . They are feminine, aren’t they?”

Still hankering after mass, Adela said, “It sounds to me more like undifferentiated sex force,” and ignored Hugh’s murmur, “There isn’t much fun in that.”

“I don’t know that they were meant to be either male or female,” Stanhope said. “I told you they were more of an experiment in a different kind of existence. But whether men or women are most like that is another matter.” He shed an apologetic smile on Mrs. Parry.

“If they’re going to be leaves,” Miss Fox asked, “couldn’t they all wear huge green leaves, so that no one would know if they were wearing knee-breeches or skirts?”

There was a pause while everyone took this in, then Mrs. Parry said, very firmly, “I don’t think that would answer,” while Hugh Prescott said to Adela, “Chorus of Figleaves!”

“Why not follow the old pantomime or the present musical comedy,” Stanhope asked, “and dress your feminine chorus in exquisite masculine costume? That’s what Shakespeare did with his heroines, as often as he could, and made a diagram of something more sharp and wonderful than either. I don’t think you’ll do better. Masculine voices — except boys — would hardly do, nor feminine appearances.”

Mrs. Parry sighed, and everyone contemplated the problem again. Adela Hunt and Hugh Prescott discussed modernity between themselves. Pauline, lying back, like Stanhope, in her chair, was thinking of Stanhope’s phrases, “a different life”, “a terrible good”, and wondering if they were related, if this Chorus over which they were spending so much trouble were indeed an effort to shape in verse a good so alien as to be terrifying. She had never considered good as a thing of terror, and certainly she had not supposed a certain thing of terror in her own secret life as any possible good. Nor now; yet there had been an inhumanity in the great and moving lines of the Chorus. She thought, with an anger generous in its origin but proud and narrow in its conclusion, that not many of the audience really cared for poetry or for Stanhope’s poetry — perhaps none but she. He was a great poet, one of a very few, but what would he do if one evening he met himself coming up the drive? Doppelgaenger, the learned called it, which was no comfort. Another poet had thought of it; she had had to learn the lines at school, as an extra task because of undone work:

The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,

Met his own image walking in the garden.

She had never done the imposition, for she had had nightmares that night, after reading the lines, and had to go sick for days. But she had always hated Shelley since for making it so lovely, when it wasn’t loveliness but black panic. Shelley never seemed to suggest that the good might be terrible. What would Peter Stanhope do? what could he? if he met himself?

They were going: people were getting up and moving off. Everyone was being agreeably grateful to Stanhope for his lawn, his tea, and his poetry. In her fear of solitude she attached herself to Adela and Hugh and Myrtle Fox, who were all saying good-bye at once. As he shook hands he said casually: “You don’t think they are?” and she did not immediately understand the reference to the measurement of Omnipotence by mortal tremors. Her mind was on Myrtle, who lived near her. She hated the pang of gratitude she felt, and hated it more because she despised Miss Fox. But at least she wouldn’t be alone, and the thing she hated most only came, or had so far only come, when she was alone. She stuck close to Myrtle, listening to Adela as they went.

“Pure waste,” Adela was saying. “Of course, Stanhope’s dreadfully traditional”-how continually, Pauline thought, people misused words like dreadful; if they knew what dread was!-“but he’s got a kind of weight, only he dissipates it. He undermines his mass. Don’t you think so, Pauline?”

“I don’t know,” Pauline said shortly, and then added with private and lying malice: “I’m no judge of literature.”

“Perhaps not,” Adela said, “though I think it’s more a question of general sensitiveness. Hugh, did you notice how the Parry talked of significance? Why, no one with a really adult mind could possibly — O, good-bye, Pauline; I may see you tomorrow.” Her voice passed away, accompanied by Hugh’s temporary and lazy silence, and Pauline was left to Myrtle’s monologues on the comforting friendliness of sunsets.

Even that had to stop when they reached the Foxes’ hole. Myrtle, in a spasm of friendship for Messias, frequently called it that. As they parted upon the easy joke, Pauline felt the rest of the sentence pierce her. She took it to her with a sincerity of pain which almost excused the annexation-“the Son of Man hath not. where to lay his head.” It was the cry of her loneliness and fear, and it meant nothing to her mind but the empty streets and that fear itself. She went on.

Not to think; to think of something else. If she could. It was so hopeless. She was trying not to look ahead for fear she saw it, and also to look ahead for fear she was yielding to fear. She walked down the road quickly and firmly, remembering the many thousand times it had not come. But the visitation was increasing-growing nearer and clearer and more frequent. In her first twenty-four years she had seen it nine times; at first she had tried to speak of it. She had been told, when she was small, not to be silly and not to be naughty. Once, when she was adolescent, she had actually told her mother. Her mother was understanding in most things, and knew it. But at this the understanding had disappeared. Her eyes had become as sharp as when her husband, by breaking his arm, had spoiled a holiday in Spain which she —“for all their sakes”— had planned. She had refused to speak any more to Pauline that day, and neither of them had ever quite forgiven the other. But in those days the comings — as she still called them — had been rare; since her parents had died and she had been sent to live with and look after her grandmother in Battle Hill they had been more frequent, as if the Hill was fortunate and favourable to apparitions beyond men; a haunt of alien life. There had been nine in two years, as many as in all the years before. She could not speak of it to her grandmother, who was too old, nor to anyone else, since she had never discovered any closeness of friendship. But what would happen when the thing that was she came up to her, and spoke or touched? So far it had always turned aside, down some turning, or even apparently into some house; she might have been deceived were it not for the chill in her blood. But if some day it did not. . . .

A maid came out of a house a little farther down a road, and crossed the pavement to a pillar-box. Pauline, in the first glance, felt the sickness at her heart. Relieved, she reacted into the admission that she was only twenty-three houses away from her home. She knew every one of them; she had not avoided so much measurement of danger. it had never appeared to her indoors; not even on the Hill, which seemed to be so convenient for it. Sometimes she longed always to stay indoors; it could not be done, nor would she do it. She drove herself out, but the front door was still a goal and a protection. She always seemed to herself to crouch and cling before she left it, coveting the peace which everyone but she had . . . twenty-one, twenty. . . . She would not run; she would not keep her eyes on the pavement. She would walk steadily forward, head up and eyes before her . . . seventeen, sixteen. . . . She would think of something, of Peter Stanhope’s play-“a terrible good”. The whole world was for her a canvas printed with unreal figures, a curtain apt to roll up at any moment on one real figure. But this afternoon, under the stress of the verse, and then under the shock of Stanhope’s energetic speech, she had fractionally wondered: a play — was there a play? a play even that was known by some? and then not without peace . . . ten, nine . . . the Magus Zoroaster; perhaps Zoroaster had not been frightened. Perhaps if any of the great — if Caesar had met his own shape in Rome, or even Shelley. . . . . was there any tale of any who had? . . . six, five, four. . . .

Her heart sprang; there, a good way off-thanks to a merciful God — it was, materialized from nowhere in a moment. She knew it at once, however far, her own young figure, her own walk, her own dress and hat-had not her first sight of it been attracted so? changing, growing. . . . It was coming up at her pace — doppelgaenger, doppelgaenger — her control began to give . . . two . . . she didn’t run, lest it should, nor did it. She reached her gate, slipped through, went up the path. If it should be running very fast up the road behind her now? She was biting back the scream and fumbling for her key. Quiet, quiet! “A terrible good.” She got the key into the keyhole; she would not look back; would it click the gate or not? The door opened; and she was in, and the door banged behind her. She all but leant against it, only the doppelgaenger might be leaning similarly on the other side. She went forward, her hand at her throat, up the stairs to her room, desiring (and every atom of energy left denying that her desire could be vain) that there should be left to her still this one refuge in which she might find shelter.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30