Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Ten

The Sound of the Trumpet

Mrs. Parry, rising that morning to control the grand occasion, and excluding from her mind as often as possible the image of a photograph in the papers of herself and Peter Stanhope side by side, “author and producer”, found a note from Lawrence Wentworth waiting on her breakfast table. It was short and frigid. It said only that he had caught a feverish chill and would not be at the performance. Even so, it had given him some trouble to write, for it had demanded contact, and only a desire that he should not be, by some maddening necessary inquiry, disturbed in his solitude, had compelled him to write it. He had sent it round very early, and then had returned to sit in his study, with curtains drawn, to help him in his sickness.

“Very odd weather to catch a feverish chill,” Mrs. Parry thought, looking through her window at the dancing sunlight. “And he might have returned his ticket, and he might have sent good wishes.” Good wishes were precisely what Wentworth was incapable of sending anywhere, but Mrs. Parry could not know that. It was difficult to imagine what either Zion or Gomorrah would make of Mrs. Parry, but of the two it was certainly Zion which would have to deal with her, since mere efficiency, like mere being, is in itself admirable, and must be coloured with definite evil before it can be lost. She made a note to tell the Seating Committee there was a seat to spare. If there were no other absentee, if none of the cast were knocked down by a car, blown up by a geyser, or otherwise incapacitated, she would think herself fortunate. She had had a private word with Pauline the day before, after the rehearsal. Rumours of Mrs. Anstruther’s condition had reached her, and she wanted, in effect, to know what Periel was going to do about it. She had always been a little worried about it, but one couldn’t refuse parts to suitable people because of elderly grandmothers. Periel, however, had been entirely sensible; with the full consent, almost (Mrs. Parry understood) under the direction of the grandmother. She would, under God, be there. Mrs. Parry had not too much belief in God’s punctuality, but she was more or less satisfied, and left it at that. If misadventure must come, the person best spared to it would be Peter Stanhope himself. Mrs. Parry would willingly have immolated him on any altar, had she had one, to ensure the presence of the rest, and the success of the afternoon; it was why he admired her. She desired a public success, but more ardently she desired success — the achievement. She would have preferred to give a perfect performance to empty seats rather than, to full, it should fall from perfection.

She was given her desire. Even the picture was supplied. Stanhope, approached by photographers, saw to that. He caused her to be collected from her affairs at a distance; he posed by her side; he directed a light conversation at her; and there they both were: “Mr. Stanhope chatting with the producer (Mrs. Catherine Parry).” She took advantage of the moment to remind him that he had promised to say something at the end of the play, “an informal epilogue”. He assured her that he was ready-“quite informal. The formal, perhaps, would need another speaker. An archangel, or something.”

“It’s angelic of you, Mr. Stanhope,” she said, touched to a new courtesy by his, but he only smiled and shook his head.

The photographs — of them, of the chief personages, of the Chorus — had been taken in a secluded part of the grounds before the performance. Stanhope lingered, watching, until they were done; then he joined Pauline.

“How good Mrs. Parry is!” he said sincerely. “Look how quiet and well-arranged we all are! a first performance is apt to be much more distracted, but it’s as much as our lives are worth to be upset now.”

She said thoughtfully, “She is good, but I don’t think it’s altogether her: it’s the stillness. Don’t you feel it, Peter?”

“It doesn’t weigh on us,” he answered, smiling, “but-yes.”

She said: “I wondered. My grandmother died this morning — five minutes after I got back. I wondered if I was imagining the stillness from that.”

“No,” he said thoughtfully, “but that may be in it. It’s as if there were silence in heaven — a fortunate silence. I almost wish it were the Tempest and not me. What a hope!

I’ll deliver all;

And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales,

And sail so expeditious, that shall catch

Your royal fleet far off.”

His voice became incantation; his hand stretched upward in the air, as if he invoked the motion of the influences, and the hand was magical to her sight. The words sprang over her; auspicious gales, sail so expeditious, and she away to the royal fleet far off, delivered, all delivered, all on its way. She answered: “No; I’m glad it’s you. You can have your Tempest, but I’d rather this.”

He said, with a mild protest: “Yet he wrote your part for you too; can you guess where?”

“I’ve been educated,” she answered, brilliant in her pause before they parted. “Twice educated, Peter. Shall I try?

Merrily, merrily, shall I live now Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Bless me to it.”

“Under the Mercy,” he said, and watched her out of sight before he went to find a way to his own seat.

The theatre was almost full; late-comers were hurrying in. The gate was on the point of being closed — two minutes, as the notices had stated, before the beginning of the play when the last came. It was Mrs. Sammile. She hurried through, and as she came she saw Stanhope. As he bowed, she said breathlessly: “So nice,@ isn’t it? Have you got everything you want?”

“Or that we don’t-” Stanhope began, but she chattered on: “But it’s a good thing not to have, isn’t it? Perfection would be so dull, wouldn’t it? It’s better to think of it than to have it isn’t it? I mean, who was it said it’s better to be always walking than to get there?”

“No, thank you very much,” he said, laughing outright. “I’d rather have perfection than think of it, though I don’t see why we shouldn’t do both. But we mustn’t stop; you’ve only a minute and a half. Where’s your ticket? This way.” He took her round to her seat — at the end of a row, towards the front — and as he showed it to her he said, gravely: “You won’t mind getting there for once, will you? Rather than travelling hopefully about this place the whole afternoon.”

She threw a look at him, as he ran from her to his own seat, which perplexed him, it seemed so full of bitterness and despair. It was almost as if she actually didn’t want to sit down. He thought, as he sank into his chair, “But if one hated to arrive? If one only lived by not arriving? if one preferred avoiding to knowing? if unheard melodies were only sweet because they weren’t there at all? false, false. . . . and dismissed his thought, for the Prologue stood out before the trees, and the moment of silence before the trumpet sounded was already upon them.

It sounded annunciatory of a new thing. It called its world together, and prepared union. It directed all attention forward, as, his blasts done, the Prologue, actors ready behind and audience expectant before, advanced slowly across the grass. But to one mind at least it did even more. At the dress rehearsal it had announced speech to Pauline, as to the rest; now it proclaimed the stillness. It sprang up out of the stillness. She also was aware of a new thing-of speech in relation to the silence in which it lived.

The pause in which the Prologue silently advanced exhibited itself to her as the fundamental thing. The words she had so long admired did not lose their force or beauty, but they were the mere feel of the texture. The harmony of motion and speech, now about to begin, held and was composed by the pauses: foot to foot, line to line, here a little and there a little. She knew she had always spoken poetry against the silence of this world; now she knew it had to be spoken against — that perhaps, but also something greater, some silence of its own. She recognized the awful space of separating stillness which all mighty art creates about itself, or, uncreating, makes clear to mortal apprehension. Such art, out of “the mind’s abyss”, makes tolerable, at the first word or note or instructed glance, the preluding presence of the abyss. It creates in an instant its own past. Then its significance mingles with other significances; the stillness gives up kindred meanings, each in its own orb, till by the subtlest graduations they press into altogether other significances, and these again into others, and so into one contemporaneous nature, as in that gathering unity of time from which Lilith feverishly fled. But that nature is to us a darkness, a stillness, only felt by the reverberations of the single speech. About the song of the Woodcutter’s Son was the stillness of the forest. That living stillness had gathered the girl into her communion with the dead; it had passed into her own spirit when the vision of herself had closed with herself; it had surrounded her when she looked on the dead face of Margaret; and now again it rose at the sound of the trumpet — that which is before the trumpet and shall be after, which is between all sentences and all words, which is between and in all speech and all breath, which is itself the essential nature of all, for all come from it and return to it.

She moved; she issued into the measured time of the play; she came out of heaven and returned to heaven, speaking the nature of heaven. In her very duty the doctrine of exchange held true, hierarchical and republican. She owed the words to Stanhope; he owed the utterance to her and the rest. He was over her in the sacred order, and yet in the sacred equality they ran level. So salvation lay everywhere in interchange: since, by an act only possible in the whole, Stanhope had substituted himself for her, and the moan of a God had carried the moan of the dead. She acted, and her acting was reality, for the stillness had taken it over. The sun was blazing, as if it would pierce all bodies there, as if another sun radiated from another sky exploring energies of brilliance. But the air was fresh.

She was astonished in the interval to hear Myrtle Fox complaining of the heat. “It’s quite intolerable,” Miss Fox said, “and these filthy trees. Why doesn’t Mr. Stanhope have them cut down? I do think one’s spirit needs air, don’t you? I should die in a jungle, and this feels like a jungle.”

“I should have thought,” Pauline said, but not with malice, “that you’d have found jungles cosy.”

“There’s such a thing as being too cosy,” Adela put in. “Pauline, I want to speak to you a minute.”

Pauline allowed herself to be withdrawn. Adela went on: “You’re very friendly with Mr. Stanhope, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Pauline said, a little to her own surprise. She had rather meant to say: “O not very” or “Aren’t you?”, or the longer and more idiotic “Well I don’t know that you’d call it friendly”. But it struck her that both they and every other living creature, from the Four-by-the-Throne to the unseen insects in the air, would call it friendly. She therefore said, “Yes”, and waited.

“O!” said Adela, also a little taken aback. She recovered and went on: “I’ve been thinking about this play. We’ve done so much with it-I and Mrs. Parry and the rest. . . . ” She paused.

“Myrtle”, Pauline said, “remarked yesterday that she felt deeply that it was so much ours.”

“O,” said Adela again. The heat was heavy on her too and she was pinker than strictly the Princess should have been. The conversation hung as heavy as the heat. A determination that had hovered in her mind had got itself formulated when she saw the deference exhibited towards him by the outer world that afternoon, and now with a tardy selfishness she pursued it. She said: “I wonder if you’d ask him something.”

“Certainly — if I can decently,” Pauline answered, wondering, as she heard herself use the word, where exactly the limits of decency, if any, in the new world lay. Peter, she thought, would probably find room for several million universes within those limits.

“It’s like this,” Adela said. “I’ve always thought this a very remarkable play.”

Pauline’s heavenly nature said to her other, without irritation but with some relevance, “The hell you have!”

“And,” Adela went on, “as we’ve all been in it here, I thought it’d be jolly if we could keep it ours — I mean, if he’d let us.” She realized that she hated asking favours of Pauline, whom she had patronized; she disliked subordinating herself. The heat was prickly in her skin, but she persevered. “It’s not for myself so much,” she said, “as for the general principle. . . . ”

“O, Adela, be quick!” Pauline broke in. “What do you want?”

Adela was not altogether unpractised in the gymnastics of Gomorrah. Her spirit had come near to the suburbs, and a time might follow when the full freedom of the further City of the Plain would be silently presented to her by the Prince of the City and Lilith his daughter and wife. She believed — with an effort, but she believed-she was speaking the truth when she said: “I don’t want anything, but I think it would be only right of Mr. Stanhope to let us have a hand in his London production.”

“Us?” Pauline asked.

“Me then,” Adela answered. “He owes us something, doesn’t he? and”, she hurried on, “if I could get hold of a theatre-a little one — O, I think I could raise the money . . . ”

“I should think you could”, Pauline said, “for a play by Mr. Stanhope.”

“Anyhow, I thought you might sound him-or at least back me up,” Adela went on. “You do see there’s nothing personal about it?” She stopped, and Pauline allowed the living stillness to rise again.

Nothing personal in, this desire to clothe immortality with a career? Nothing unnatural perhaps; nothing improper perhaps; but nothing personal? Nothing less general than the dark pause and the trees and the measured movements of verse? nothing less free than interchange of love? She said: “Adela, tell me it’s for yourself, only yourself, and I’ll do it if I can.”

Adela, extremely offended, and losing her balance said: “It isn’t. We shall be as good for him as he will be for us.”

“A kind of mutual-profit system?” Pauline suggested. “You’d better get back; they’ll be ready. I’ll do whatever you want — tomorrow.”

“But —” Adela began; however, Pauline had gone; where Adela did not quite see. It was the heat of the afternoon that so disjoined movement, she thought. She could not quite follow the passage of people now-at least, off the stage. They appeared and disappeared by her, as if the air opened, and someone were seen in the midst of it, and then the air closed up, and opened again, and there was someone else. She was getting fanciful. Fortunately there was only one more act, and on the stage it was all right; there people were where she expected them. Or, if not, you could find fault; that refuge remained. She hurried to the place, and found herself glad to be there. Lingering near was the Grand Duke. He contemplated her as she came up.

“You look a little done,” he said, gravely and affectionately.

“It’s the heat,” said Adela automatically.

“It’s not so frightfully hot,” Hugh answered. “Quite a good afternoon. A little thunder about somewhere, perhaps.”

The thunder, if it was thunder, was echoing distantly in Adela’s ears; she looked at Hugh’s equanimity with dislike. He had something of Mrs. Parry in him, and she resented it. She said: “I wish you were more sensitive, Hugh.”

“So long as I’m sensitive to you,” Hugh said, “it ought to be enough. You’re tired, darling.”

“Hugh, you’d tell me I was tired on the Day of judgment,” Adela exclaimed. “I keep on saying it’s the heat.”

“Very well,” Hugh assented; “it’s the heat making you tired.”

“I’m not tired at all,” Adela said in a burst of exasperated rage, “I’m hot and I’m sick of this play, and I’ve got a headache. It’s very annoying to be so continually misunderstood. After all, the play does depend upon me a good deal, and all I have to do, and when I ask for a little sympathy. . . . ”

Hugh took her arm. “Shut up,” he said.

She stared back. “Hugh —” she began, but he interrupted her.

“Shut up,” he said again. “You’re getting above yourself, my girl; you and your sympathy. I’ll talk to you when this is over. You’re the best actor in the place, and your figure’s absolutely thrilling in that dress, and there’s a lot more to tell you like that, and I’ll tell you presently. But it’s time to begin now, and go and do as I tell you.”

Adela found herself pushed away. There had been between them an amount of half-pretended mastery and compulsion, but she was conscious of a new sound in Hugh’s voice. It struck so near her that she forgot about Pauline and the heat and Stanhope, for she knew that she would have to make up her mind about it, whether to reject or allow that authoritative assumption. Serious commands were a new thing in their experience. Her immediate instinct was to evade: the phrase which sprang to her mind was: “I shall have to manage him — I can manage him.” If she were going to marry Hugh — and she supposed she was — she would either have to acquiesce or pretend to acquiesce. She saw quite clearly what she would do; she would assent, but she would see to it that chance never assented. She knew that she would not revolt; she would never admit that there was any power against which Adela Hunt could possibly be in a state of revolt. She had never admitted it of Mrs. Parry. It was always the other people who were in revolt against her. Athanasian in spirit, she knew she was right and the world wrong. Unathanasian in method, she intended to manage the world . . . Stanhope, Mrs. Parry, Hugh. She would neither revolt nor obey nor compromise; she would deceive. Her admission to the citizenship of Gomorrah depended on the moment at which, of those four only possible alternatives for the human soul, she refused to know which she had chosen. Tell me it’s for yourself, only yourself. . . . . No, no, it’s not for myself; it’s for the good of others, her good, his good, everybody’s good: is it my fault if they don’t see it? manage them, manage them, manage her, manage him, and them. O, the Princess managing the Woodcutter’s Son, and the Chorus, the chorus of leaves, this way, that way; minds twiddling them the right way; treachery better than truth, for treachery was the only truth, there was no truth to be treacherous to — and the last act beginning, and she in it, and the heat crackling in the ground, in her head, in the air. On then, on to the stage, and Pauline was to ask Stanhope tomorrow.

Pauline watched her as she went, but she saw the Princess and not Adela. Now the process of the theatre was wholly reversed, for stillness cast up the verse and the verse flung out the actors, and though she knew sequence still, and took part in it, it was not sequence that mattered, more than as a definition of the edge of the circle, and that relation which was the exhibition of the eternal. Relation in the story, in the plot, was only an accident of need: there had been a time when it mattered, but now it mattered no longer, or for a while no longer. Presently, perhaps, it would define itself again as a need of daily life; she would be older than her master, or younger, or contemporaneous; now they were both no more than mutual perceptions in a flash of love. She had had relation with her ancestor and with that other man more lately dead and with her grandmother — all the presently disincarnate presences which lived burningly in the stillness, through which the fire burned, and the stillness was the fire. She danced out of it, a flame flung up, a leaf catching to a flame. They were rushing towards the end of the play, an end, an end rushing towards the earth and the earth rushing to meet it. The words were no longer separated from the living stillness, they were themselves the life of the stillness, and though they sounded in it they no more broke it than the infinite particles of creation break the eternal contemplation of God in God. The stillness turned upon itself; the justice of the stillness drew all the flames and leaves, the dead and living, the actors and spectators, into its power-percipient and impercipient, that was the only choice, and that was for their joy alone. She sank deeper into it. The dance of herself and all the others ceased, they drew aside, gathered up — O on how many rehearsals, and now gathered! “Behold, I come quickly! Amen, even so. . . . ” They were in the groups of the last royal declamations, and swept aside, and the mighty stage was clear. Suddenly again, from somewhere in that great abyss of clarity, a trumpet sounded, and then a great uproar, and then a single voice. It was the beginning of the end; the judgment of mortality was there. She was standing aside, and she heard the voice and knew it; from the edge of eternity the poets were speaking to the world, and two modes of experience were mingled in that sole utterance. She knew the voice, and heard it; all else was still. Peter Stanhope, as he had promised, was saying a few words at the close of the play.

There was but one small contretemps. As, after moving to the stage and turning to face the audience, Stanhope began to speak, Mrs. Sammile slid down in, and finally completely off, her chair, and lay in a heap. She had been very bright all the afternoon; in fact, she had been something of a nuisance to her immediate neighbours by the whispered comments of admiration she had offered upon the display of sound and colour before her. As the crash of applause broke out she had been observed to make an effort to join in it. But her hands had seemed to tremble and fail. Stanhope was to speak before the last calls, and the applause crashed louder when he appeared. It was in the midst of that enthusiasm that Mrs. Sammile fainted.

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