Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Four

Vision of Death

Pauline’s parents had both died a few years before; she had been put in Battle Hill to live with her grandmother for two reasons. The first was that she had no money. The second was that her uncle refused “to leave his mother to strangers”. Since Pauline’s mother had never liked her husband’s parents, the girl had practically never seen the old lady. But the blood relationship, in her uncle’s mind connoted intimacy, and he found an occupation for an orphan and a companion for a widow at one stroke of mercy. Pauline was furious at the decisive kindness which regulated her life, but she had not, at the time when it interfered, found a job, and she had been so involved with the getting to Battle Hill that she discovered herself left there, at last, with her grandmother, a nurse, and a maid. Even so, it was the latent fear in her life that paralysed initiative; she could respond but she could not act. Since they had been on the Hill and the visitations had grown more frequent, she felt that deep paralysis increasing, and she kept her hold on social things almost desperately tight. Her alternative was to stop in altogether, to bury herself in the house, and even so to endure, day by day, the fear that her twin might resolve out of the air somewhere in the hall or the corridor outside her own room. She hated to go out, but she hated still more to stop in, and her intelligence told her that the alternative might save her nothing in the end. Rigid and high-headed she fled, with a subdued fury of pace, from house to gathering, and back from gathering to house, and waited for her grandmother to die.

Her grandmother, ignoring the possible needs of the young, went on living, keeping her room in the morning, coming down to lunch, and after a light early dinner retiring again to her room. She made no great demands on her granddaughter, towards whom indeed she showed a delicate social courtesy; and Pauline in turn, though in a harsher manner, maintained towards her a steady deference and patience. The girl was in fact so patient with the old lady that she had not yet noticed that she was never given an opportunity to be patient. She endured her own nature and supposed it to be the burden of another’s.

On an afternoon in early June they were both in the garden at the back of the house; the walls that shut it in made it a part of the girl’s security. Pauline was learning her part, turning the typescript on her knees, and shaping the words with silent lips. The trouble about some of them was that they were so simple as to be almost bathos. Her fibres told her that they were not bathos until she tried to say them, and then, it was no good denying, they sounded flat. She put the stress here and there; she tried slowness and speed. She invoked her conscious love to vocalize her natural passion, and the lines made the effort ridiculous. She grew hot as she heard herself say them, even though she did not say them aloud. Her unheard melody was less sweet than her memory of Stanhope’s heard, but she did not then think of him reading, only of the lines he had read. They were simple with him; with her they were pretentious and therefore defiled. She looked up at Mrs. Anstruther, who was sitting with her eyes closed, and her hands in her lap. Small, thin, wrinkled, she was almost an ideal phenomenon of old age Some caller, a day or two before, had murmured to Pauline on leaving: “She’s very fragile, isn’t she?” Pauline, gazing, thought that fragile was precisely not the word. Quiet, gentle, but hardly passive and certainly not fragile. Even now, on that still afternoon, the shut eyes left the face with a sense of preoccupation — translucent rock. She was absent, not with the senility of a spirit wandering in feeble memories, but with the attention of a worker engrossed. Perhaps Stanhope looked so when he wrote verse. Pauline felt that she had never seen her grandmother before and did not quite know what to make of her now. A light sound came from the garden beyond. Mrs. Anstruther opened her eyes and met Pauline’s. She smiled. “My dear,” she said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something for the last day or two.” Pauline thought it might be the hot afternoon that gave the voice that effect of distance; it was clear, but small and from afar. The words, the tone, were affectionate with an impersonal love. Pauline thought: “She might be talking to Phoebe”— Phoebe being the maid — and at the same time realized that Mrs. Anstruther did so talk to Phoebe, and to everyone. Her good will diffused itself in all directions. Her granddaughter lay in its way, with all things besides, and it mingled with the warm sun in a general benediction.

Pauline said: “Yes, grandmother?”

“If by any chance I should die during the next few weeks,” Mrs. Anstruther said, “you won’t let it interfere with your taking part in the play, will you? It would be so unnecessary.”

Pauline began to speak, and hesitated. She had been on the point of beginning formally: “O, but”, when she felt, under the lucid gaze, compelled to intelligence. She said slowly: “Well, I suppose I should have. . . . ”

“Quite unnecessary,” Mrs. Anstruther went on, “and obviously inconvenient, especially if it were in the last few days. Or the last. I hoped you wouldn’t think of it, but it was better to make sure.”

“It’ll look very odd,” said Pauline, and found herself smiling back. “And what will the rest of them think?”

“One of them will be disappointed, the rest will be shocked but relieved,” Mrs. Anstruther murmured. “You’ve no proper understudy?”

“None of us have,” Pauline said. “One of the others in the Chorus would have to take my part . . . if I were ill, I mean.”

“Do any of them speak verse better than you?” Mrs. Anstruther asked, with a mild truthfulness of inquiry.

Pauline considered the Chorus. “No,” she said at last, sincerely. “I don’t think . . . I’m sure they don’t. Nor Adela,” she added with a slight animosity against the princess. Her grandmother accepted the judgment. “Then it would be better for you to be there,” she said. “So you’ll promise me? It will very nearly be a relief.”

“I’ll promise certainly,” Pauline said. “But you don’t feel worse, do you, my dear? I thought you’d been stronger lately — since the summer came in.”

“‘I have a journey, sir, shortly to go,’” Mrs. Anstruther quoted. “And a quieter starting-place than our ancestor.”

“Our ancestor?” Pauline said, surprised. “O, but I remember. He was martyred wasn’t he?”

Mrs. Anstruther quoted again: “‘Then the said Struther being come to the stake, cried out very loudly: To him that hath shall be given, and one of the friars that went with him struck at him and said: Naughty heretic, and what of him that hath not? and he shouted with a great laughter, pointing at the friar, and calling out: He shall lose all that he hath, and again the Lord hath sent away the rich with empty bellies. Then they stripped him, and when he was in his shirt he looked up and said: The ends of the world be upon me; and so they set him at the stake and put the fire to the wood, and as the fire got hold of him he gave a loud cry — and said — I have seen the salvation of my God, and so many times till he died. Which was held for a testimony that the Lord had done great things for him there in the midst of the fire, and under the Lady Elizabeth the place was called Struther’s Salvation for many years.’”

Mrs. Anstruther stopped. “perhaps the Lord did,” she said, “though I would not quite take Foxe’s word for it.”

Pauline shuddered. “It was a terrible thing,” she said. “How he could shout for joy like that!”

“Salvation,” Mrs. Anstruther said mildly, “is quite often a terrible thing-a frightening good.”

“A . . . ” said Pauline, and paused. “Mr. Stanhope said something like that,” she ended.

“Peter Stanhope is a great poet,” her grandmother answered. “But I don’t think many of you can possibly understand his play. You may; I can’t tell.”

“Mrs. Parry understands it, all but the Chorus”, Pauline said. “And Adela and Myrtle Fox understand even that.”

Mrs. Anstruther’s look changed. She had been contemplating the fact of Stanhope’s poetry with a gaze of awe; there entered into that awe a delicate and extreme delight. She said: “My dear, I used to know Catherine Parry very well. No one has destroyed more plays by successful production. I sometimes wonder — it’s wrong — whether she has done the same thing with her life. It’s wrong; she is a good creature, and she has behaved very well in all her unrehearsed effects. But I feel she relies too much on elocution and not enough on poetry.”

Pauline meditated on this. “I don’t think I quite understand,” she said. “How the elocution?”

“You’re a little inclined to it yourself, my dear,” Mrs. Anstruther answered. “Your elocution is very just and very effective, but a certain breath of the verse is lacking. No one could have been kinder to me than you have. We’ve done very well together — I as the patient and you as the keeper. That’s what I mean by elocution.”

She turned on her granddaughter eyes full of delight and affection. Pauline could only sit and stare. Then slowly a blush crept up her face, and she looked hastily away.

“Ah, don’t be distressed,” the old woman said. “My dear, you’ve been perfect. You’re in trouble over something, and yet you’ve always been kind. I wish I could have helped you.”

“I’m not in any trouble,” Pauline said with a slight harshness, “except now. Have I been stupid, grandmother?”

“That,” Mrs. Anstruther said, “was perhaps a little less than intelligent. Why do you refuse to lean?”

“I don’t,” Pauline said bitterly, “but there’s no —” She was on the point of saying “no help in leaning”; she recovered herself, and changed it to “no need to lean”.

“O, my dear child,” Mrs. Anstruther murmured gently, “that’s almost like the speech days at my school. Ask Peter Stanhope to tell you how to read verse.”

Confused between metaphor, implication, and rebuke, and the voice that disseminated sweetness through all, Pauline was about to protest again when Phoebe came out into the garden. She came up to her mistress, and said: “Mrs. Lily Sammile has called, madam, and wants to know if you are well enough to see her.”

“Certainly,” Mrs. Anstruther said. “Ask Mrs. Sammile to come out here.” And as Phoebe disappeared: “Do you know her, Pauline?”

Pauline, standing up and folding her typescript with a precision that was almost respect, said: “Hardly know. She meets one continually, and she’s at things. She calls. I never met anyone who’d called on her, now I come to think of it. I don’t even know where she lives.”

“There are all sorts of places to live on this hill,” Mrs. Anstruther said, and Pauline heard in the voice an undertone of ambiguity. For a moment her fear took her; she looked hastily round. There was no sign of her twin. “All sorts of places to live.”

“Many habitations,” she answered with forced lightness, and went to meet the visitor who appeared from the house.

Mrs. Sammile was younger than Mrs. Anstruther, and much quicker in movement. She was much more restless. Her feet pattered on the path, her eyes glanced everywhere; she suggested by her whole bearing that time was in a hurry, and there was very little time for-something. Perhaps the contrast of Mrs. Anstruther’s repose heightened this excitement. She was shorter than Pauline and her eyes looked up at the girl almost anxiously. She said: “I’ve only just looked in. But it was so long since I’d seen you.”

“We met yesterday, if you remember,” Pauline answered, smiling. “But it was good of you to come.”

“I don’t, I hope, intrude?” Mrs. Sammile went on, as she shook hands with the old woman. Mrs. Anstruther murmured something vague, and Pauline said it more definitely: “Of course not, Mrs. Sammile, we’re delighted.”

“Such glorious weather-but trying, isn’t it?” the visitor prattled nervously on, rather like a chicken fluttering round the glass walls of a snake’s cage. “I always think any weather’s trying, heat or cold. And it always seems to be one or other, doesn’t it?”

“So pleasant,” said Mrs. Anstruther politely. “Like sex, one can’t imagine anything not one or the other. Or, of course, a combination.”

“If,” Pauline added, valiant but aware of failure, “if we could make our own weather. . . . ”

Lily Sammile slewed round a little towards her. “If we could!” she said. “I thought yesterday that you were looking a little tired, my dear.”

“Was I?” Pauline answered. “Perhaps I was,” and added agonizingly, “It’s the spring, I expect.”

The other looked at her, turning still a little more away from Mrs. Anstruther, and seeming to become a little quieter as she did so. She said: “I do think the world’s rather trying, don’t you?”

“I do,” Pauline said with a heartfelt throb of assent, more earnestly than she knew. “Very trying.” It certainly hot. She felt that three in the garden were too many, and wondered if her grandmother, in case she was feeling tired, ought to be offered an opportunity of going indoors. If June were so sultry, what would July be? The time was still; no sound came. A lifting palpitation took her; she shuddered. Her grave: who walked on, or was it from, her grave? The thing she had so often seen? into which — she knew now she feared to be drawn, to be lost or not to be lost, to be always herself as the enfeebled element in something else. Never yet within walls, but the heat crept round her, a preliminary invasion; the heat came over or through walls, and after the heat its centre.

The violent sensation receded. She came to herself to find herself staring rudely at Mrs. Sammile’s face. It was a face that had been beautiful, rounded and precious with delight, sustained just sufficiently by its bones to avoid, as for instance Adela Hunt’s hardly avoided, the reproach of plumpness; and was still full in places, by the ears and round the jaw; only the cheeks were a little macabre in their withdrawal, and the eyes in their hint of hollows about them. Pauline, stirred by the sad recollection of her other self, thought that Mrs. Sammile looked more like death than her grandmother, more like a living death, than which, on this hill where her own ancestor and so many others had died, what could be more likely?

Mrs. Sammile was saying softly: “Perhaps she’s asleep; I don’t want to wake her. You look so tired. If I could be any use.”

Pauline thought, as she looked back, that she had been unjust to Mrs. Sammile’s eyes. They were not restless, as she had thought. They were soothing; they appealed and comforted at once. She said: “I’ve had bad dreams.”

Mrs. Sammile said: “I’ve had them too, sometimes,” and Pauline almost felt that even her dream, to call it that, was less trouble than those other undescribed nightmares. But before she could speak the visitor went on: “But there are cures, you know.”

She had spoken, perhaps, a little more loudly, for Mrs. Anstruther’s voice answered equably: “There is, of course, sleep. Or waking. Is there anything else?”

Mrs. Sammile looked round and her answer held the suggestion of hostility. She said, defensively: “Pleasanter dreams. On a hill like this, one ought to have a choice. There are so many.”

Pauline said: “Can you change dreams, Mrs. Sammile?”

“O, everyone can,” the other answered. She leant toward Pauline and went on: “There are all sorts of ways of changing dreams.” She put a hand on the girl’s. “All tales of the brain. Why not tell yourself a comforting tale?”

“Because I could never make up a satisfying end,” Pauline said, “and the tale wouldn’t stop — no tale that I could think of. There was always something more that had to happen, and I could never feel — not in my best tale — that I was certainly telling it.”

“You must let me tell you tales instead,” Lily Sammile answered. “Come and see me.”

“I’d like to, but I don’t think I know where you live Mrs. Sammile,” Pauline said, and paused on the implied question.

Mrs. Sammile said: “O, we shall meet. And if we can’t find a tale we’ll do as well. Cross my hand with silver, and I’ll not only tell you a good fortune, I’ll make you one. Like the Bible — wine and milk without money, or for so little it hardly counts.”

Pauline looked at Mrs. Anstruther. “Mrs. Sammile is offering us all we want without any trouble,” she said. “Shall we take it and be grateful?”

“Exquisite rhetoric,” her grandmother allusively answered but faintly, and Pauline went on to the visitor: “And would one always enjoy oneself then?”

“Why not?” Mrs. Sammile said. “Everything lovely in you for a perpetual companion, so that you’d never be frightened or disappointed or ashamed any more. There are tales that can give you yourself completely and the world could never treat you so badly then that you wouldn’t neglect it. One can get everything by listening or looking in the right way: there are all sorts of turns.”

Phoebe reappeared by Mrs. Anstruther’s chair. “Miss Fox and Mr. Stanhope, madam,” she said, and retired with a message.

Pauline said, as she stood up, “It’d be too wonderful,” and then, “Aren’t you rather tired, grandmother? Wouldn’t you rather go upstairs and let me see them indoors?”

“My dear,” Mrs. Anstruther said, “as long as Peter Stanhope comes to see me, I shall receive him. At least, until Mrs. Sammile gives us the effect of Shakespeare without Shakespeare. Give me your arm.” She stood up, and leaning on the girl took a step or two forward, as Myrtle Fox, followed by Stanhope, came into the garden, and hurried across to her.

“Dear Mrs. Anstruther, how nice to see you again,” Myrtle said. “It seems such a long time, but you know how rushed one is! But I felt I must come today. Do you know Mr. Stanhope? We met in the street and came along together.”

Mrs. Anstruther allowed herself to be embraced and kissed without any further welcome than a smile; then she held out her hand.

“This is a great honour, Mr. Stanhope,” she said. “I’m very glad to welcome you here.”

He bowed over her hand. “It’s very kind of you, Mrs. Anstruther.”

“I’ve owed you a great deal for a long while now,” she said, “and I can do no more than acknowledge it. But I’m grateful that I can do that. Do you know Mrs. Sammile?”

Stanhope bowed again; Myrtle let out a new gush of greeting and they all sat down.

“I really came”, Stanhope said after a little interchange, “to ask Miss Anstruther if she had any preference in names.”

“Me?” said Pauline. “What sort of names?”

“As the leader of the Chorus,” Stanhope explained. “I promised Mrs. Parry I’d try and individualize so far — for the sake of the audience — as to give her a name. Myself, I don’t think it’ll much help the audience, but as I promised, I wondered about something French, as it’s to be eighteenth century, La Lointaine or something like that. But Mrs. Parry was afraid that’d make it more difficult. No one would understand (she thought) why leaves — if they are leaves — should be lointaine. . . . ”

He was interrupted by Myrtle, who, leaning eagerly forward, said: “O, Mr. Stanhope, that reminds me. I was thinking about it myself the other day, and I thought how beautiful and friendly it would be to give all the Chorus tree-names. It would look so attractive on the programmes, Elm, Ash, Oak — the three sweet trees — Hawthorn, Weeping Willow, Beech, Birch, Chestnut. D’you see? That would make it all quite clear. And then Pauline could be the Oak. I mean, the Oak would have to be the leader of the English trees, wouldn’t he or she?”

“Do let Mr. Stanhope tell us, Myrtle,” Mrs. Anstruther said; and “You’d turn them into a cosy corner of trees, Myrtle,” Pauline interjected.

“But that’s what we want,” Myrtle pursued her dream, “we want to realize that Nature can be consoling, like life. And Art — even Mr. Stanhope’s play. I think all art is so consoling, don’t you, Mrs. Sammile?”

Mrs. Anstruther had opened her mouth to interrupt Myrtle, but now she shut it again, and waited for her guest to reply, who said in a moment, with a slight touch of tartness, “I’m sure Mr. Stanhope won’t agree. He’ll tell you nightmares are significant.”

“O, but we agreed that wasn’t the right word,” Myrtle exclaimed. “Or was it! Pauline, was it significant or symbolical that we agreed everything was?”

“I want to know my name,” Pauline said, and Stanhope, smiling, answered, “I was thinking of something like Periel. Quite insignificant.”

“It sounds rather odd,” said Myrtle. “What about the others?”

“The others,” Stanhope answered firmly, “will not be named.”

“O!” Myrtle looked disappointed. “I thought we might have had a song or speech or something with all the names in it. It would sound beautiful. And Art ought to be beautiful, don’t you think? Beautiful words in beautiful voices. I do think elocution is so important.”

Pauline said, “Grandmother doesn’t care for elocution.”

“O, Mrs. Anstru —” Myrtle was beginning, when Mrs. Anstruther cut her short.

“What does one need to say poetry, Mr. Stanhope?” she asked.

Stanhope laughed. “What but the four virtues, clarity, speed, humility, courage? Don’t you agree?”

The old lady looked at Mrs. Sammile. “Do you?” she asked.

Lily Sammile shrugged. “O, if you’re turning poems into labours,” she said. “But we don’t all want to speak poetry, and enjoyment’s a simple thing for the rest of us.”

“We do all want to speak it,” Stanhope protested. “Or else verse and plays and all art are more of dreams than they need be. They must always be a little so, perhaps.”

Mrs. Sammile shrugged again. “You make such a business of enjoying yourself,” she said with almost a sneer. “Now if I’ve a nightmare I change it as soon as I can.” She looked at Pauline.

“I’ve never had nightmares since I willed them away,” Myrtle Fox broke in. “I say every night: ‘Sleep is good, and sleep is here. Sleep is good.’ And I never dream. I say the same thing every morning, only I say Life then instead of Sleep. ‘Life is good and Life is here. Life is good.”’

Stanhope flashed a glance at Pauline. “Terribly good, perhaps,” he suggested.

“Terribly good, certainly,” Myrtle assented happily.

Mrs. Sammile stood up. “I must go,” she said. “But I don’t see why you don’t enjoy yourselves.”

“Because, sooner or later, there isn’t anything to enjoy in oneself,” Stanhope murmured, as she departed.

Pauline took her to the gate, and said good-bye.

“Do let’s meet,” Mrs. Sammile said. “I’m always about, and I think I could be useful. You’ve got to get back now, but sometime you needn’t get back. . . . ..” She trotted off, and as she went the hard patter of her heels was the only sound that broke, to Pauline’s ears, the heavy silence of the Hill.

The girl lingered a little before returning. A sense of what Miss Fox called “significance” hung in her mind; she felt, indeterminately, that something had happened, or, perhaps, was beginning to happen. The afternoon had been one of a hundred-the garden, a little talk, visitors, tea — yet all that usualness had been tinged with difference. She wondered if it were merely the play, and her concern with it, that had heightened her senses into what was, no doubt, illusion. Her hands lay on the top bar of the gate, and idly she moved her fingers, separating and closing them one by one for each recollected point. Her promise to her grandmother — death was not to interrupt verse; the memory of her ancestor — death swallowed up in victory — Struther’s Salvation, Anstruther’s salvation; elocution, rhetoric, poetry, Peter Stanhope, Lily Sammile, the slight jar of their half-philosophical dispute; her own silly phrase —“to make your own weather”; tales of the brain, tales to be told, tales that gave you yourself in quiet, tales or the speaking of verse, tales or rhetoric or poetry; “clarity, speed, courage, humility”. Or did they only prevent desirable enjoyment, as Lily Sammile had hinted? One would have to be terribly good to achieve them. And terribly careful about the tales. She looked down the street, and for an instant felt that if she saw It coming — clarity, speed, courage, humility — she might wait. She belonged to the Chorus of a great experiment; a thing not herself.

The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child, Met his own image walking in the garden.

If those four great virtues were needed, as Peter Stanhope had proposed, even to say the verse, might Shelley have possessed them before he discovered the verse? If she were wrong in hating them? if they had been offered her as a classification, a hastening, a strengthening? if she had to discover them as Shelley had done, and beyond them. . . .

She must go back. She pulled herself from the gate. Mrs. Sammile had just reached the corner. She looked back; she waved. The gesture beckoned. Pauline waved back, reluctantly. Before she told herself tales, it was needful to know what there was in verse. She must hear more.

She was not offered more. The visitors were on the point of departure, and Mrs. Anstruther was certainly tired. She roused herself to beg Stanhope to come again, if he would, but no more passed, except indeed that as Pauline herself said goodbye, Stanhope delayed a moment behind Miss Fox to add: “The substantive, of course, governs the adjective; not the other way round.”

“The substantive?” Pauline asked blankly.

“Good. It contains terror, not terror good. I’m keeping you. Good-bye, Periel,” and he was gone.

Later in the day, lying unsleeping but contented in her bed, Mrs. Anstruther also reviewed the afternoon. She was glad to have seen Peter Stanhope; she was not particularly glad to have seen Lily Sammile, but she freely acknowledged, in the words of a too often despised poet, that since God suffered her to be she too was God’s minister, and laboured for some good by Margaret Anstruther not understood. She did not under-, stand clearly what Mrs. Sammile conceived herself to be offering. it sounded so much like Myrtle Fox: “tell yourself tales”.

She looked out of the window. There would be few more evenings during which she could watch the departure of day, and the promise of rarity gave a greater happiness to the experience. So did the knowledge of familiarity. Rarity was one form of delight and frequency another. A thing could even be beautiful because it did not happen, or rather the not-! happening could be beautiful. So long always as joy was not rashly pinned to the happening; so long as you accepted what joys the universe offered and did not seek to compel the universe to offer you joys of your own definition. She would die soon; she expected, with hope and happiness, the discovery of the joy of death.

It was partly because Stanhope’s later plays had in them something of this purification and simplicity that she loved them. She knew that, since they were poetry, they must mean more than her individual being knew, but at least they meant that. He discovered it in his style, in words and the manner of the, words he used. Whether his personal life could move to the sound of his own lucid exaltation of verse she did not know. It was not her business; perhaps even it was not primarily his. His affair had been the powerful exploration of power after his own manner; all minds that recognized power saluted him. Power was in that strange chorus over which the experts of Battle Hill culture disputed, and it lay beyond them. There was little human approach in it, though it possessed human experience; like the Dirge in Cymbeline or the songs of Ariel in the Tempest it possessed only the pure perfection of fact, rising in rhythms of sound that seemed inhuman because they were free from desire or fear or distress. She herself did not yet dare to repeat the Chorus; it was beyond her courage. Those who had less knowledge or more courage might do so. She dared only to recollect it; to say it would need more courage than was required for death. When she was dead, she might be able to say Stanhope’s poetry properly. Even if there were no other joy, that would be a reason for dying well.

Here, more than in most places, it should be easy. Here there had, through the centuries, been a compression and culmination of death as if the currents of mortality had been drawn hither from long distances to some whirlpool of invisible depth. The distances might be very long indeed; from all places of predestined sepulchre, scattered through the earth. In those places the movement of human life had closed-of human life or human death, of the death in life which was an element in life, and of those places the Hill on which she lived was one. An energy reposed in it, strong to affect all its people; an energy of separation and an energy of knowledge. If, as she believed, the spirit of a man at death saw truly what he was and had been, so that whether he desired it or not a lucid power of intelligence manifested all himself to him — then that energy of knowledge was especially urgent upon men and women here, though through all the world it must press upon the world. She felt, as if by a communication of a woe not hers, how the neighbourhood of the dead troubled the living; how the living were narrowed by the return of the dead. Therefore in savage regions the houses of sepulchre were forbidden, were taboo, for the wisdom of the barbarians set division between the dead and the living, and the living were preserved. The wisdom of other religions in civilized lands had set sacramental ceremonies about the dying, and dispatched the dead to their doom with prayers and rites which were not meant for the benefit of the dead alone. Rather, they secured the living against ghostly oppression; they made easy the way of the ghosts into their own world and hurried them upon their way. They were sped on with unction and requiem, with intercessions and masses; and the sword of exorcism waved at the portal of their exodus against the return of any whom those salutations of departure did not ease. But where superstition and religion failed, where cemeteries were no longer forbidden and no longer feared; where the convenient processes of cremation encouraged a pretence of swift passage, where easy sentimentality set up a pretence of friendship between the living and the dead — might not that new propinquity turn to a fearful friendship in the end? It was commonly accepted that the dead were anxious to help the living, but what if the dead were only anxious for the living to help them? or what if the infection of their experience communicated itself across the too shallow grave? Men were beginning to know, they were being compelled to know; at last the living world was shaken by the millions of spirits who endured that further permanent revelation. Hysteria of self-knowledge, monotony of self-analysis, introspection spreading like disease, what was all this but the infection communicated over the unpurified borders of death? The spirits of the living world were never meant to be so neighbourly with the spirits of that other. “Grant to them eternal rest, O Lord. And let light eternal shine upon them.” Let them rest in their own places of light; far, far from us be their discipline and their endeavour. The phrases of the prayers of intercession throb with something other than charity for the departed; there is a fear for the living. Grant them, grant them rest; compel them to their rest. Enlighten them, perpetually enlighten them. And let us still enjoy our refuge from their intolerable knowledge.

As if in a last communion with the natural terrors of man, Margaret Anstruther endured a recurrent shock of fear. She recalled herself. To tolerate such knowledge with a joyous welcome was meant, as the holy Doctors had taught her, to be the best privilege of man, and so remained. The best maxim towards that knowledge was yet not the Know thyself of the Greek so much as the Know Love of the Christian, though both in the end were one. It was not possible for man to know himself and the world, except first after some mode of knowledge, some art of discovery. The most perfect, since the most intimate and intelligent, art was pure love. The approach by love was the approach to fact; to love anything but fact was not love. Love was even more mathematical than poetry; it was the pure mathematics of the spirit. It was applied also and active; it was the means as it was the end. The end lived everlastingly in the means; the means eternally in the end.

The girl and the old woman who lay, both awake, in that house under the midnight sky, were at different stages of that way. To the young mind of Pauline, by some twist of grace in the operation of space and time, the Greek maxim had taken on a horrible actuality; the older vision saw, while yet living, almost into a world beyond the places of the dead. Pauline knew nothing yet of the value of those night vigils, nor of the fulfilment of the desire of truth. But Margaret had, through a long life, practised the distinction, not only between experience and experience, but in each experience itself between dream and fact. It is not enough to say that some experiences are drugs to the spirit; every experience, except the final, has a quality which has to be cast out by its other quality of perfection, expelled by healthy digestion into the sewers where the divine scavengers labour. By a natural law Margaret’s spirit exercised freely its supernatural functions and with increasing clearness looked out on to the growing company of the Hill.

Lights in the houses opposite had long since been put out. The whole rise of ground, lying like a headland, or indeed as itself like some huge grave in which so many others had been dug, was silent in the darkness, but for one sound; the sound of footsteps. Margaret knew it very well; she had heard it on many nights. Sometimes in the day as well, when the peace was deepest within her and without, she could hear that faint monotonous patter of feet reverberating from its surface. Its distance was not merely in space, though it seemed that also, but in some other dimension. Who it was that so walked for ever over the Hill she did not know, though in her heart she did not believe it to be good. The harsh phrase would have been alien to her. She heard those feet not as sinister or dangerous, but only — patter, patter — as the haste of a search for or a flight from repose-perhaps both. Ingress and regress, desire and repulsion, contended there. The contention was the only equilibrium of that haunter of the Hill, and was pain. Patter, patter. It sounded at a distance, like the hurrying feet of the woman on her own garden path that afternoon. She had heard, in old tales of magic, of the guardian of the threshold. She wondered if the real secret of the terrible guardian were that he was simply lost on the threshold. His enmity to man and heaven was only his yearning to enter one without loss. It did not matter, nor was it her affair. Her way did not cross that other’s; only it was true she never sank into those circles of other sensation and vision but what, far off, she heard — patter, patter — the noise of the endless passage.

There moved within her the infinite business of the Hill into which so much death had poured. First there came the creation of new images instead of those of every day. Her active mind still insisted on them; she allowed its due. The Hill presented itself before her with all its buildings and populace; she saw them, small and vivid, hurrying. She would even sometimes recognize one or other, for the briefest second. She had seen, in that recreation by night of the Hill by day, Pauline going into a shop and Peter Stanhope talking in the street, and others. She remembered now, idly, that she had never seen the woman who had called on her that day, though she had seen Myrtle Fox running, running hard, down a long street. Distinct though the vision was it was but momentary. It was the equivalent of her worldly affairs, and it lasted little longer; in a second it had gone.

It had enlarged rather. It reduplicated itself on each side, and its inhabitants faded from it as it did so, seeming themselves to pass into other hills. Presently there was no living form or building on that original Hill, and it was no longer possible to tell which had been the original, for a great range swept right across the sky, and all those heights were only the upper slopes of mountains, whose lower sides fell away beneath her vision. The earth itself seemed to lie in each of those mountains, and on each there was at first a populous region towards the summit, but the summit itself rose individual and solitary. Mountains or modes of consciousness, peaks or perceptions, they stood; on the slopes of each the world was carried; and the final height of each was a separate consummation of the whole. It was, as the apprehended movement upon each of them died away, in the time before the dawn that they rose there, nor had the sun risen, though they were not in darkness. Either a light emanated from themselves or some greater sun drew towards them from its own depth.

Then-it was not to say that they faded, but rather that she lost them, becoming herself one of them and ignorant of the rest. It was very silent; only small sounds came up to her as if someone was climbing below. The noises were so faint that in the air of earth they would have been lost. Had she been woman she would not have known them; now that she was not woman alone but mountain, the mountain knew that it was not from its own nature alone that the tiny disturbances came. There was movement within it certainly; rush of streams, fall of rocks, roar of winds through its chasms, but these things were not sound to it as was that alien human step. Through all another single note sounded once; a bell. Minutely she knew that the public clock of the Hill had struck one. It was a remote translation of a thing, for the dawn began.

It came from above, and as the light grew the mountain that was she became aware again of its fellows, spread out around no longer in a long range but in a great mass. They stretched away on all sides. At the increase of the sun there grew also an increase of fugitive sound; and she became aware of a few wandering shapes on the heights about her. Some climbed on; others, instead of welcoming the light as lost mountaineers should do, turned to escape it. They hurried into such caves or crevasses as they could find. Here and there, on a great open space, one lay fallen, twisting and dragging himself along. They seemed all, even those who climbed, grotesque obtrusions into that place of rock and ice and thin air and growing sun, a world different from theirs, hers and not hers. A divided consciousness lived in her, more intensely than ever before.

In the time of her novitiate it had seemed to her sometimes that, though her brains and emotions acted this way or that, yet all that activity went on along the sides of a slowly increasing mass of existence made from herself and all others with whom she had to do, and that strong and separate happiness-for she felt it as happiness, though she herself might be sad; her sadness did but move on it as the mountaineer on the side of a mountain-that happiness was the life which she was utterly to become. Now she knew that only the smallest fragility of her being clung somewhere to the great height that was she and others and all the world under her separate kind, as she herself was part of all the other peaks; and though the last fragility was still a little terrified of the dawn which was breaking everywhere, she knew that when the dawn reached the corner where she lay it would, after one last throb of piercing change under its power, light but the mountain side, and all her other mighty knowledge would after its own manner rejoice in it. She had not much strength in these days-that she which was Margaret Anstruther and lay in her bed on Battle Hill-but such as she had it was her business to use. She set herself to crawl out of that darkened corner towards the light. She turned from all the corner held — her home, her memories, Stanhope’s plays, Pauline; with effort she began her last journey. It might take hours, or days, or even years, but it was certain; as she moved, crawling slowly over the rock, she saw the light sweeping on to meet her. The moment of death was accepted and accomplished in her first outward movement; there remained only to die.

On her way and in her bed, she dozed a little, and in that light sleep — dream within dream or vision within vision — she seemed to be walking again in the streets of Battle Hill, as if, having renounced it, it was restored to her. It was still night there; the lamps were lit in the streets; the rustle of the many trees was substituted for the silence of the mountains. But the great mountains were there, and the light of them, and their inhabitants; though the inhabitants did not know the soil on which they lived. In a foretaste of the acute senses of death she walked among them, but they did not see her. Outside her own house she saw Pauline come out and look bitterly this way and the other, and start to walk down the road, and presently as if from the mountain side another Pauline had grown visible and came to meet the first, her head high and bright as the summit, her eyes bright with the supernatural dawn, her movements as free and yet disposed as the winds that swept the chasms. She came on, her feet which at first made no noise, beginning to sound on the pavement as she took on more and more of mortal appearance, and the first Pauline saw her and turned and fled, and the second pursued her, and far away, down the dark streets and round the dark mountain, they vanished from sight. And then again, and now she was not by her own house but in another street towards the top of the Hill, she saw a man walking hurriedly on, a man strange to her, but after him followed a crowd of others, young men and children, and all of them with his face. They pursued him, as the vision of Pauline had pursued the vision of Pauline, but this time with angry or plaintive cries, and he hurried on seeking something, for his restless eyes turned every way and sometimes he peered at the gutter and sometimes he looked up at the dark window, till presently he turned in at one of the gates, and about the gate his company seemed to linger and watch and whisper. Presently she saw him at a window, looking down; and there were at that window two forms who did not seem to see each other, but the second she knew, for he had been at her house once not so long ago, and it was Lawrence Wentworth. He too was looking down, and after a little he was coming out of the gate, and after him also came a figure, but this time a woman, a young woman, who pursued him in his turn, and for whom also he lay in wait.

But the other man too had now come out into the street, only it was no more the street of a town but a ruined stretch of scaffolding or bone or rock, all heights and edges and bare skeleton shapes.. He was walking there on the mountain though he did not know it, any more than he noticed the light. He walked and looked up and round, and her eyes met his, and he made a sudden movement of wonder and, she thought, of joy. But as they looked, the dream, which was becoming more and more a dream, shifted again, and she heard quick and loud the patter-patter of those footsteps with which, as if they marked a region through or round which she passed such experiences always began and ended. She was on the Hill, and all the houses were about her, and they stood all on graves and bones, and swayed upon their foundations. A great stench went up from them, and a cry, and the feet came quicker, and down the street ran Lily Sammile, waving and calling, and checked and stood. She looked at a gate; Pauline was standing there. The two neared each other, the gate still between them, and began to talk. “No more hurt, no more pain, no more bad dreams,” a voice said. Margaret Anstruther put out a hand; it touched a projection in the rock on which she was lying in her journey towards corporeal death. She clung to it, and pulled herself forward towards Pauline. The nurse in the room heard her and turned. Mrs. Anstruther said: “I should like to see Pauline; will you ask her-” and at that she woke, and it was striking one.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/descent-into-hell/chapter4.html

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