Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Five

Return to Eden

Margaret Anstruther had seen, in her vision, a single house, with two forms leaning from the same window. Time there had disappeared, and the dead man had been contemporaneous with the living. As if simultaneity approached the Hill, the experiences of its inhabitants had there become coeval; propinquity no longer depended upon sequence.

The chance that brought Lawrence Wentworth into such close spiritual contact with the dead was the mere manner of his ill luck. His was not worse than any other’s, though the hastening of time to its end made it more strange. It grew in him, like all judgment, through his negligence. A thing of which he had consistently refused to be aware, if action is the test of awareness, drew close to him: that is, the nature of the Republic. The outcast of the Republic had climbed a forlorn ladder to his own death. His death entered into the Republic, and into the lives of its other members. Wentworth had never acknowledged the unity. He had never acknowledged the victims of oppression nor the presence of victimization. It may be that such victimization is inevitable, and that the Republic after its kind must be as false to its own good as the lives of most of its children are to theirs. But Wentworth had neither admitted nor rejected this necessity, nor even questioned and been hurt by it; he had merely ignored it. He had refused the agony of the res publica, and of temporal justice. Another justice sharpened the senses of his res private. He was doubly open to its approach-in his scholarship, where the ignoring of others began to limit, colour, and falsify his work, and in his awareness of supernatural neighbours, if any should be near. One was.

The dead man had stood in what was now Wentworth’s bedroom, and listened in fear lest he should hear the footsteps of his kind. That past existed still in its own place, since all the past is in the web of life nothing else than a part, of which we are not sensationally conscious. It was drawing closer now to the present; it approached the senses of the present. But between them still there went-patter, patter-the hurrying footsteps which Margaret Anstruther had heard in the first circle of the Hill. The dead man had hardly heard them; his passion had carried him through that circle into death. But on the hither side were the footsteps, and the echo and memory of the footsteps, of this world. It was these for which Wentworth listened. He had come back into his own room after he had heard those steady and mocking footsteps of Hugh and Adela, and the voices and subdued laughter accompanying them. He had himself wandered up and down, and come to a rest at last at the finished window where, with no wall before him, the dead man had peered. He also peered. He listened, and his fancy created for him the unheard melody of the footsteps. His body renewed and absorbed the fatal knowledge of his desire. He listened, in the false faith of desire. It could not be that he would not hear, out of those double footsteps, one true pair separating themselves, coming up the street, approaching the gate; that he would not see a true form coming up the drive, approaching the door. It must happen; his body told him it must happen. He must have what he wanted, because . . . but still those feet did not come. The dead man stood by him, arm to arm, foot by foot, and listened, the rope in his hand, and that night neither of them heard anything at all.

The evening and the morning were the first day, of a few hours, or a few months, or both at once. Others followed. The business of the Hill progressed; the play went forward. Pauline fled, and Margaret died, or lived in process of death. Hugh went up and down to the City. Adela went about the Hill. Wentworth, now possessed by his consciousness of her, and demanding her presence and consent as its only fulfillment went about his own affairs. “Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me”; the maxim applies to many stones of stumbling, and especially to all those of which the nature is the demand for a presence instead of the assent to an absence; the imposition of the self upon complacency. Wentworth made his spiritual voice hoarse in issuing orders to complacency, and stubbed his toes more angrily every day against the unmovable stone.

Once or twice he met Adela-once at Mrs. Parry’s, where they had no chance to speak. They smiled at each other-an odd smile; the faintest hint of greed, springing from the invisible nature of greed, was in it on both sides. Their greeds smiled. Again he ran into her one evening at the post office with Hugh, and Hugh’s smile charged theirs with hostility. It ordered and subdued Adela’s; it blocked and repulsed Wentworth’s. It forced on him the fact that he was not only unsuccessful, but old; he contended against both youth and a rival. He said: “How’s the play going?”

“We’re all learning our parts,” Adela said. “There doesn’t seem to be time for anything but the play. Shall we ever get another evening with you, Mr. Wentworth?”

He said: “I was sorry you could neither of you come.” That, he thought, would show that he hadn’t been taken in.

“Yes,” said Hugh; the word hung ambiguously. Wentworth, angered by it, went on rashly: “Did you have a pleasant time?”

He might have meant the question for either or both. Adela said: “O well, you know; it was rather a rush. Choosing colours and all that.”

“But fortunately we ran into each other later,” Hugh added, “and we almost ran at each other — didn’t we, Adela? so we fed in a hurry and dashed to a theatre. It might have been much worse.”

Wentworth heard the steps in his brain. He saw Hugh take Adela’s arm; he saw her look up at him; he saw an exchanged memory. The steps went on through him; double steps. He wanted to get away to give himself up to them: life and death, satisfaction of hate and satisfaction of lust, contending, and the single approach of the contention’s result — patter, patter, steps on the Hill. He knew they were laughing at him. He made normal noises, and abnormally fled. He went home.

In his study he automatically turned over his papers, aware but incapable of the organic life of the mind they represented. He found himself staring at his drawings of costumes for the play, and had an impulse to tear them, to refuse to have anything to do with the grotesque mummery, himself to reject the picture of the rejection of himself. But he did not trust his own capacity to manage a more remote force than Adela — Mrs. Parry. Mrs. Parry meant nothing to him; she could never become to him the nervous irritation, he obsession, which both Aston Moffatt and Adela now were. His intelligence warned him that she was, nevertheless, one of the natural forces which, like time and space, he could not overcome. She wanted the designs, and she would have them. He could refuse, but not reject, Adela; he could reject, but he certainly could not refuse, Mrs. Parry. Irritated at his knowledge of his own false strength, he flung down the rescued designs. Under them were his first drafts; he tore them instead.

The evening wore into night. He could not bring himself to go to bed. He walked about the room; he worked a little and walked, and walked a little and worked. He thought of going to bed, but then he thought also of his dream, and the smooth strange rope. He had never so much revolted against it as now; he had never, waking, been so strongly aware of it as now. It might have been coiled in some corner of the room, were it not that he knew he was on it, in the dream. Physically and emotionally weary, he still walked, and a somnambulism of scratched images closed on him. His body twitched jerkily; the back of his eyes ached as if he stared interiorly from the rope into a backward abysm. He stood irritably still.

His eyes stared interiorly; exteriorly they glanced down and saw the morning paper, which, by an accident, he had not opened. His hands took it up, and turned the pages. In the middle he saw a headline: “Birthday Honours”, and a smaller headline: “Knighthood for Historian”. His heart deserted him: his puppet-eyes stared. They found the item by the name in black type for their convenience: “Aston Moffatt”.

There was presented to him at once and clearly an opportunity for joy — casual, accidental joy, but joy. If he could not manage joy, at least he might have managed the intention of joy, or (if that also were too much) an effort towards the intention of joy. The infinity of-grace could have been contented and invoked by a mere mental refusal of anything but such an effort. He knew his duty — he was no fool — he knew that the fantastic recognition would please and amuse the innocent soul of Sir Aston, not so much for himself as in some unselfish way for the honour of history. Such honours meant nothing, but they were part of the absurd dance of the world, and to be enjoyed as such. Wentworth knew he could share that pleasure. He could enjoy; at least he could refuse not to enjoy. He could refuse and reject damnation.

With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous, knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy instead. He instantaneously preferred anger, and at once it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him. He crushed the paper in a rage, then he tore it open, and looked again and again-there it still was. He knew that his rival had not only succeeded, but succeeded at his own expense; what chance was there of another historical knighthood for years? Till that moment he had never thought of such a thing. The possibility had been created and withdrawn simultaneously, leaving the present fact to mock him. The other possibility — of joy in that present fact — receded as fast. He had determined, then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts.

He walked, unknowing, to the window, and stared out. He loomed behind the glass, a heavy bulk of monstrous greed. His hate so swelled that he felt it choking his throat, and by a swift act transferred it; he felt his rival choking and staggering, he hoped and willed it. He stared passionately into death, and saw before him a body twisting at the end of a rope. Sir Aston Moffatt . . . Sir Aston Moffatt. . . . He stared at the faint ghost of the dead man’s death, in that half-haunted house, and did not see it. The dead man walked on his own Hill, but that Hill was not to be Wentworth’s. Wentworth preferred another death; he was offered it.

As he stood there, imagining death, close to the world of the first death, refusing all joy of facts, and having for long refused all unselfish agony of facts, he heard at last the footsteps for which he had listened. It was the one thing which could abolish his anger; it did. He forgot, in his excitement, all about Aston Moffatt; he lost sight, exteriorly and interiorly, of the dangling figure. He stood breathless, listening. Patter, patter; they were coming up the road. Patter-patter; they stopped at the gate. He heard the faint clang. The footsteps, softer now, came in. He stared intently down the drive. A little way up it stood a woman’s figure. The thing he had known must happen had happened. She had come.

He pushed the window up — careful, even so, not to seem to go fast, not to seem to want her. He leaned out and spoke softly. He said: “Is that you?” The answer startled him, for it was Adela’s voice and yet something more than Adela’s, fuller, richer, more satisfying. It said “I’m here.” He could only just hear the words, but that was right, for it was after midnight, and she was beckoning with her hand. The single pair of feet drawn from the double, the hand waving to him. He motioned to her to come, but she did not stir, and at last, driven by his necessity, he climbed through the window; it was easy enough, even for him-and went down to meet her. As he came nearer he was puzzled again, as he had been by the voice. It was Adela, yet it was not. It was her height, and had her movement. The likeness appeased him, yet he did not understand the faint unlikeness. For a moment he thought it was someone else, a woman of the Hill, someone he had seen, whose name he did not remember. He was up to her now, and he knew it could not be Adela, for even Adela had never been so like Adela as this. That truth which is the vision of romantic love, in which the beloved becomes supremely her own adorable and eternal self, the glory and splendour of her own existence, and her own existence no longer felt or thought as hers but of and from another, that was aped for him then. The thing could not astonish him, nor could it be adored. It perplexed. He hesitated.

The woman said: “You’ve been so long.”

He answered roughly: “Who are you? You’re not Adela.”

The voice said: “Adela!” and Wentworth understood that Adela was not enough, that Adela must be something different. even from Adela if she were to be satisfactory to him, something closer to his own mind and farther from hers. She had been in relation with Hugh, and his Adela could never be in relation with Hugh. He had never understood that simplicity before. It was so clear now. He looked at the woman opposite and felt a stirring of freedom in him.

He said: “You waved?” and she: “Or didn’t you wave to me?”

He said, under her eyes: “I didn’t think you’d be any use to me.”

She laughed: the laugh was a little like Adela’s, only better. Fuller; more amused. Adela hardly ever laughed as if she were really amused; she had always a small condescension. He said: “How could I know?”

“You don’t think about yourself enough,” she said; the words were tender and grateful to him, and he knew they were true. He had never thought enough about himself. He had wanted to be kind. He had wanted to be kind to Adela; it was Adela’s obstinate folly which now outraged him. He had wanted to give himself to Adela out of kindness. He was greatly relieved by this woman’s words, almost as much as if he had given himself. He went on giving. He said: “If I thought more of myself?”

“You wouldn’t have much difficulty in finding it,” she answered. “Let’s walk.”

He didn’t understand the first phrase, but he turned and went by her side, silent while he heard the words. Much difficulty in finding what? in finding it? the it that could be found if he thought of himself more; that was what he had said or she had said, whichever had said that the thing was to be found, as if Adela had said it, Adela in her real self, by no means the self that went with Hugh; no, but the true, the true Adela who was apart and his; for that was the difficulty all the while, that she was truly his, and wouldn’t be, but if he thought more of her truly being, and not of her being untruly away, on whatever way, for the way that went away was not the way she truly went, but if they did away with the way she went away, then Hugh could be untrue and she true, then he would know themselves, two, true and two, on the way he was going, and the peace in himself, and the scent of her in him, and the her, meant for him, in him; that was the she he knew, and he must think the more of himself. A faint mist grew round them as they walked, and he was under the broad boughs of trees, the trees of the Hill, going up the Hill, up to the Adela he kept in himself, where the cunning woman who walked by his side was taking him, and talking in taking. He had been slow, slow, very slow not to see that this was true, that to get away from Hugh’s Adela was to find somewhere and somehow the true Adela, the Adela that was his, since what he wanted was always and everywhere his; he had always known that, yet that had been his hardship, for he must know it was so, and yet it hadn’t seemed so. But here in the mists under the trees, with this woman, it was all clear. The mist made everything clear.

She said: “In here.” He went in; a wooden door swung before and behind him.

It was quite dark. He stood. A hand slipped into his hand. and pressed it gently. It drew him forward, and a little to one side. He said aloud: “Where are we?” but there was no answer, only he thought he heard the sound of water running, gently, a lulling and a lapping. It was not worth while, against that sound, asking again where he was. The darkness was quiet; his heart ceased to burn, though he could hear its beating, in time with the lapping and lulling waters. He had never heard his heart beating so loudly; almost as if he were inside his own body, listening to it there. It would be louder then, he thought, unless his senses were lulled and dulled. Likely enough that if he were inside his own body his senses would be lulled, though how he got there or how he would get out. . . . If he wanted to get out. Why? Why fly from that shelter, the surest shelter of all, though he could not be quite there yet because of the hand that guided him, round and round in some twisting path. He knew that there were hundreds of yards, or was it millions, of tubes or pipes or paths or ropes or something, coiled, many coils, in his body; he would not want to catch his foot in them or be twisted up in them; that was why the hand was leading him. He pressed it, for acknowledgment; it replied. They were going downhill now, it seemed, he and his guide, though he thought he could smell Adela, or if not Adela, something like Adela, some growth like Adela, and the image of a growth spread in his brain to trees and their great heavy boughs; it was not a lapping but a rustling; he had come out of himself into a wood, unless he was himself and a wood at the same time. Could he be a wood? and yet walk in it? He looked at that question for a long time while he walked, and presently found he was not thinking of that but of something else; he was slipping his fingers along a wrist, and up an arm-only a little way, for he still wished to be led on the way, though everything was so quiet he could hardly think there was any need. He liked going on, away, away, away, from somewhere behind, or indeed outside, outside the wood, outside the body, outside the door. The door wouldn’t open for anyone; it was his door, and though he hadn’t fastened it, it wouldn’t open, because it knew his wish, and his wish was to leave the two who had worried him outside the door. It was fun to think they were playing games on him when he wasn’t there; running round under his windows, and he was quite away, and they would never know, even if he saw them again, where and how and why he had been. It was good for him to be here, and great fun; one day he would laugh, but laughter would be tiring here, under trees and leaves, leaves-leaves and eaves-eaves and eves; a word with two meanings, and again a word with two meanings, eves and Eves. Many Eves to many Adams; one Eve to one Adam; one Eve to each, one Eve to all. Eve. . . .

They stopped. In the faint green light, light of a forest, faint mist in a forest, a river-mist creeping among the trees, moon in the mist, he could just see the shape of the woman beside him. He might be back again in Eden, and she be Eve, the only man with all that belonged to the only man. Others, those whose names he need not then remember, because they were the waking animals of the world-others were inconsiderable to the grand life that walked now in this glade. They hardly belonged to it at all; they belonged outside, they were outside, outside the sealed garden, no less sealed for being so huge through a secret gate of which he had entered, getting back to himself He was inside and at peace. He said aloud: “I won’t go back.”

His companion answered: “You needn’t go back really or you can take it with you if you do. Wouldn’t you like to?”

It took a while for this to reach him. He said, at last: “This? all this, d’you mean?” He was a little disturbed by the idea that he might have to go back among the shapes that ran about, harsh and menacing, outside the glade or the garden or the forest, outside the mist. They betrayed and attacked him. One had made fun of him and exposed him to her paramour. That was outside; inside, he knew the truth, and the truth was that she was quite subordinate to him. He breathed on her hand, and it was turned into stone, so that she couldn’t carry it, but it sank to the ground, slowly, in that misty air, and she was held there, crying and sobbing, by the weight of her petrified hand. He would go away for a year or two, and perhaps when he came back he would decide to set her free by blowing on the stone hand. The whole air of this place was his breath; if he took a very deep breath, there would be no air left, outside himself. He could stand in a vacuum, and nothing outside himself could breathe at all, until he chose to breathe again; which perhaps he wouldn’t do, so that he could infinitely prevent anything at all from existing merely by infinitely holding his breath. He held his breath for a century or so, and all the beasts and shapes of the wilderness, a tall young satyr and a plump young nymph among them, who were dancing to the music of their own chuckles, fell slowly down and died. The woman now beside him didn’t die, but that was because she could live without air, of which he was glad, for he wanted her to go on living, and if she had needed air she would have died. He would have destroyed her without meaning to.

She was saying, eagerly: “Yes, yes, yes: better than Eve, dearer than Eve, closer than Eve. It’s good for man to be alone. Come along, come along: farther in, farther in down under, down under.”

Down under what? down under where? down under the air that was or wasn’t? but he was there under the air, on the point of breathing out everything that would be just right. Why had he been so long content to have things wrong? it all came out of that silly name of Eve, which had prevented him realizing that he was what counted. Eve had never told him he had made her, and so he wouldn’t make her again, she should be left all a twisted rag of skin in the vacuum, and he would have a world in which no one went to the City, because there was no city unless he — but no, he wouldn’t have a City. Adela. . . .

He found he had been holding his breath; he released it. He found he was lying down, and that the woman was not there. He had exhaled, with a deep permission to Adela to exist. Now he was sleeping after that decision and act. He was awake in his sleep, and the moon was pouring itself over him. He wasn’t on a rope now. The moon was pouring down, quite out of the sky; presently there wouldn’t be any moon, only a hole in the sky: down, down! He felt hands moving over him, the moonlight changing to hands as it reached him, moonhands, cool and thrilling. The hands were delighting in him; these were what he would take back to his own world, if he went. The moon would always be his, though all the moonlight had poured down now, and there was a hole, a dark hole, because the moon had emptied itself of its glory, and was not there any more; he was at first in the smallest degree troubled, for if odd things could disappear like this, could he be certain that his own Adela would live? yes, because he was a god, and sometime he would make another moon. He forgot it now; he was quite given up to the hands that caressed him. He sank into oblivion; he died to things other than himself; he woke to himself.

He lay quiet; beyond heart and lungs he had come, in the depth of the Hill, to the bottom of the body. He saw before him, in the disappearing moonlight, a place of cisterns and broad tanks, on the watery surface of which the moon still shone and from which a faint mist still arose. Between them, covering acres of ground, an enormous shape lay, something like a man’s; it lay on its face, its shoulders and buttocks rose in mounds and the head beyond; he could not see the legs lower than the thighs, for that was where he himself lay, and they could not be seen, for they were his own. He and the Adam sprang from one source. high over him he felt his heart beat and his lungs draw breath. His machinery operated far away. He had decided that. He lay and waited for the complete creation that was his own.

The Adam slept; the mist rose from the ground. The son of Adam waited. He felt, coming over that vast form, that Hill of the dead and of the living, but to him only the mass of matter from which his perfect satisfaction was to approach, a road, a road up which a shape, no longer vast, was now coming; a shape he distrusted before he discerned it. It was coming slowly, over the mass of the Adam, a man, a poor ragged sick man. The dead man, walking in his own quiet world, knew nothing of the eyes to which his death-day walk was shown, nor of the anger with which he was seen. Wentworth saw him, and grew demented; was he to miss and be mocked again? what shape was this, and there? He sprang forward and up, to drive it away, to curse it lest it interpolated its horrid need between himself and his perfection. He would not have it: no canvassers, no hawkers, no tramps. He shouted angrily, making gestures; it offended him; it belonged to the City, and he would not have a City-no City, no circulars no beggars. No; no; no. No people but his, no loves but his.

It still came on, slowly, ploddingly, wearily, but it came: on down the road that was the Adam in the bottom of Eden determinedly plodding as on the evening when it had trudged towards its death, inexorably advancing as the glory of truth that broke out of the very air itself upon the agonized Florentine in the Paradise of Eden: “ben sem, ben sem, Beatrice” the other, the thing seen, the thing known in every fibre to be not the self, woman or beggar, the thing in the streets of the City. No, no; no canvassers, no beggars, no lovers; and away, away from the City into the wood and the mist, by the path that runs between past and present, between present and present, that slides through each moment of all experience, twisting and twining, plunging from the City and earth and Eve and all otherness, into the green mist that rises among the trees; by the path up which she was coming, the she of his longing, the she that was he, and all he in the she-patter-patter, the she that went hurrying about the Hill and the world, of whom it was said that they whom she overtook were found drained and strangled in the morning, and a single hair tight about the neck, so faint, so sure, so deathly, the clinging and twisting path of the strangling hair. She whose origin is with man’s, kindred to him as he to his beasts, alien from him as he from his beasts; to whom a name was given in a myth, Lilith or a name and Eden for a myth, and she a stirring more certain than name or myth, who in one of her shapes went hurrying about the refuge of that Hill of skulls, and pattered and chattered on the Hill, hurrying, hurrying, for fear of time growing together, and squeezing her out, out of the interstices, of time where she lived, locust in the rock; time growing together into one, and squeezing her out, squeezing her down, out of the pressure of the universal present, down into depth, down into the opposite of that end, down into the ever and ever of the void.

He was running down the path, the path that coiled round the edge of Eden, and the mist swooped to meet him. He had got right away from the road which was the shape of the Adam outstretched in the sleep precedent to the creation of fact, the separation of Eve, the making of things other than the self. He ran away into the comforting mist, partly because he liked it better, partly because there was nowhere else. He ran from sight; he found sensation. Arms met and embraced, a mouth kissed him, a@ sigh of content was loosed to him and from him. He was held, consoled, nourished, satisfied. Adela; he; sleep.

The door swung after him. He was standing on Battle Hill, not far from his house, but higher, towards the cemetery, towards the height. There, waiting for him, was a girl. She exactly resembled Adela. She came towards him softly, reached her hand to him, smiled at him, put up her mouth to him. It was night on the Hill. They turned together and went down it; after the single footsteps the double sounded again, his own and the magical creature’s drawn from his own recesses; she in him, he in him. He was complacent; they went home.

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