Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Six

The Doctrine of Substituted Love

Pauline sat back in her chair, and her arms lay along its arms. A rehearsal was taking place in the ground of the Manor House, and she had ended her part in the first act. She was free to watch the other performers, and to consider the play once more. By now they had all got more or less accustomed to that speaking of verse aloud which our uneducated mouths and ears find so difficult, being less instructed than the more universal Elizabethan must have bee. Pauline remembered again, with a queer sense of inferiority, that no Elizabethan audience, gods or groundlings, can have felt any shock of surprise or awkwardness at a play opening with a high rhodomontade of sound. No modern audience would put up with going to the first night of a new play to hear the curtain sweep up on such an absurd and superb invocation as:

Hung be the heavens with black; yield, day, to night;

Comets, importing change . . .

and so on. On the other hand, they accepted plays beginning with the most ordinary prose. Even rhodomontade demands a peculiar capacity, and to lose its bravery perhaps hampers some other bravery of the spirit; to lose even one felicity is to be robbed of more than we have a right to spare. Certainly Stanhope had spared them any overwhelming magniloquence; his verse was subdued almost to conversation, though as she listened and read and studied and spoke it, she became aware that the rhythm of these conversations was a great deal more speedy and vital than any she could ever remember taking part in. All Mrs. Parry’s efforts to introduce a stateliness of manner into the Grand Ducal court, and a humorous but slow — O so slow — realism into the village, and an enigmatic meandering meditativeness into the Chorus could not sufficiently delay the celerity of the line. Once or twice Stanhope, having been consulted, had hinted that he would rather have the meaning lost than too firmly explained, and that speed was an element, but after a great deal of enthusiastic agreement they had all gone on as before. She herself had been pleasantly ticked off by Mrs. Parry that very afternoon for hurrying, and as Stanhope hadn’t interfered she had done her best to be adequately slow. It was some recompense to sit now and listen to Adela and Mrs. Parry arguing with, or at least explaining to, each other. Adela, true to her principles of massing and blocking, arranged whole groups of words in chunks irrespective of line and meaning, but according to her own views of the emotional quality to be stressed. She had unexpectedly broken one line with a terrific symbolical pause.

“I am,” she said to her Woodcutter, and pausing as if she had invoked the Name itself and waited for its Day of Judgment to appear, added in one breath, “only the perception in a flash of love.”

Pauline encouraged in herself a twinge of wonder whether there were anything Adela Hunt were less only; then she felt ashamed of having tried to modify the line into her own judgment, especially into a quite unnecessary kind of judgment. She knew little enough of Adela, and the result was that she lost the sound of the woodcutter’s answer —“A peremptory phenomenon of love”. She thought, a little gloomily, malice could create a fair number of peremptory phenomena for itself, not perhaps of love, but easily enjoyable, like Myrtle Fox’s trees. Malice was a much cosier thing than love. She was rather glad they were not doing the last act today; that act in which Periel — male or female, no matter! — spirit, but not spiritual — she — began and led the Chorus; and everyone came in, on the most inadequate excuses, the Princess and her lover and the Grand Duke and the farmers and the banditti and the bear; and through the woods went a high medley of wandering beauty and rejoicing love and courtly intelligence and rural laughter and bloody clamour and growling animalism, in mounting complexities of verse, and over all, gathering, opposing, tossing over it, the naughting cry of the all-surrounding and overarching trees.

It troubled her now, as it had not done when she first read it, as it did not the others. She wondered whether it would have troubled her if, since the day of his first call, she had not sometimes heard her grandmother and Peter Stanhope talking in the garden. It was two or three weeks ago, since he had first called, and she could not remember that they had said anything memorable since except a few dicta about poetry-but everything they said was full and simple and unafraid. She herself had rather avoided him; she was not yet altogether prepared in so many words to accept the terror of good. It had occurred to her to imagine those two-the old woman and the poet-watching the last act, themselves its only audience, as if it were presented by the imagined persons themselves, and by no planned actors. But what would happen when the act came to an end she could not think, unless those two went up into the forest and away into the sounds that they had heard, into the medley of which the only unity was the life of the great poetry that made it, and was sufficient unity. Under the influence of one of those garden conversations she had looked up in her old school Shelley the lines that had haunted her, and seen the next line to them. It ran:

That apparition, solo of men, he saw;

and it referred, of course, to Zoroaster. But she couldn’t, watching the play, refrain from applying it to Stanhope. This apparition, sole of men — so far as she had then discovered — he had seen; and she went back to wonder again if in those three lines Shelley, instead of frightening her, was not nourishing her. Supposing — supposing — that in this last act Peter Stanhope had seen and imagined something more awful even than a vision of himself; supposing he had contemplated the nature of the world in which such visions could be, and that the entwined loveliness of his verse was a mirror of its being. She looked at the hale and hearty young man who was acting the bear, and she wondered whether perhaps her real bear, if she had courage to meet it, would be as friendly as he. If only the woodcutter’s son had not learned the language of the leaves while they, burned in the fire! There was no doubt about that speech: the very smell and noise of the fire was in it, and the conviction of the alien song that broke out within the red flames. So perhaps the phoenix cried while it burned.

Someone sat down in the next chair. She looked; it was Stanhope. Mrs. Parry and Adela concluded their discussion. Adela seemed to be modifying her chunks of words — sharpening ends and pushing them nearer till they almost met. Presumably Mrs. Parry was relying on later rehearsals to get them quite in touch, and even, if she were fortunate, to tie them together. The rehearsal began again. Stanhope said “You were, of course, quite right.”

She turned her head towards him, gravely. “You meant like that then?” she asked.

“Certainly I meant it like that,” he said, “more like that, anyhow. Do you suppose I want each line I made to march so many paces to the right, with a meditation between each? But even if I could interfere it’d only get more mixed than ever. Better keep it all of a piece.”

“But you don’t mind,” she asked, “if I’m a little quicker than some of them?”

“I should love to hear it,” he answered. “Only I think it is probably our business — yours and mine — to make our feelings agreeable to the company, as it were. This isn’t a play; it’s a pleasant entertainment. Let’s all be pleasantly entertaining together.

“But the poetry?” she said.

He looked at her, laughing. “And even that shall be Mrs. Parry’s,” he said. “For this kind of thing is not worth the fretfulness of dispute; let’s save all that till we are among the doctors, who aren’t fretful.”

She said suddenly, “Would you read it to me again one day? is it too absurd to ask you?”

“Of course I’ll read it,” he said. “Why not? If you’d like it. And now in exchange tell me what’s bothering you.”

Taken aback, she stared at him, and stammered on her answer. “But-but —” she began.

He looked at the performers. “Miss Hunt is determined to turn me into the solid geometry of the emotions,” he said. “But — but-tell me why you always look so about you and what you are looking for.”

“Do I?” she asked hesitatingly. He turned a serious gaze on her and her own eyes turned away before it. He said, “There’s nothing worth quite so much vigilance or anxiety. Watchfulness, but not anxiety, not fear. You let it in to yourself when you fear it so; and whatever it is, it’s less than your life.”

“You talk as if life were good,” she said.

“It’s either good or evil,” he answered, “and you can’t t, decide that by counting incidents on your fingers. The decision is of another kind. But don’t let’s be abstract. Will you tell me what it is bothers you?”

She said, “It sounds too silly.”

Stanhope paused, and in the silence there came to them Mrs. Parry’s voice carefully enunciating a grand ducal speech to Hugh Prescott. The measured syllables fell in globed detachment at their feet, and Stanhope waved a hand outwards.

“Well,” he said, “if you think it sounds sillier than that. God is good; if I hadn’t been here they might have done the Tempest. Consider —‘Yea — all which — it inherit — shall dis-solve. And — like this — insub — stantial pag — eant fa — ded.’ O certainly God is good. So what about telling me?”

“I have a trick,” she said steadily, “of meeting an exact likeness of myself in the street.” And as if she hated herself for saying it, she turned sharply on him. “There!” she exclaimed. “Now you know. You know exactly. And what will you say?”

Her eyes burned at him; he received their fury undisturbed, saying, “You mean exactly that?” and she nodded. “Well,” he went on mildly, “it’s not unknown. Goethe met himself once — on the road to Weimar, I think. But he didn’t make it a habit. How long has this been happening?”

“All my life,” she answered. “At intervals — long intervals, I know. Months and years sometimes, only it’s quicker now. O, it’s insane — no one could believe it, and yet it’s there.”

“It’s your absolute likeness?” he asked.

“It’s me,” she repeated. “It comes from a long way off, and@ it comes up towards me, and I’m terrified — terrified-one day it’ll come on and meet me. It hasn’t so far; it’s turned away or disappeared. But it won’t always; it’ll come right up to me — and then I shall go mad or die.”

“Why?” he asked quickly, and she answered at once “Because I’m afraid. Dreadfully afraid.”

“But,” he said, “that I don’t quite understand. You have friends; haven’t you asked one of them to carry your fear?”

“Carry my fear!” she said, sitting rigid in her chair, so that her arms, which had lain so lightly, pressed now into the basket-work and her long firm hands gripped it as if they strangled her own heart. “How can anyone else carry my fear? Can anyone else see it and have to meet it?”

Still, in that public place, leaning back easily as if they talked of casual things, he said, “You’re mixing up two things. Think a moment, and you’ll see. The meeting it — that’s one thing, and we can leave it till you’re rid of the other. It’s the fear we’re talking about. Has no one ever relieved you of that? Haven’t you ever asked them to?”

She said “You haven’t understood, of course. . . . I was a fool. . . . Let’s forget it. Isn’t Mrs. Parry efficient?”

“Extremely,” he answered. “And God redeem her. But nicely. Will you tell me whether you’ve any notion of what I’m talking about? And if not, will you let me do it for you?”

She attended reluctantly, as if to attend were an unhappy duty she owed him, as she had owed others to others and tried to fulfill them. She said politely, “Do it for me?”

“It can be done, you know,” he went on. “It’s surprisingly simple. And if there’s no one else you care to ask, why not use me? I’m here at your disposal, and we could so easily settle it that way. Then you needn’t fear it, at least, and then again for the meeting — that might be a very different business if you weren’t distressed.”

“But how can I not be afraid?” she asked. “It’s hellish nonsense to talk like that. I suppose that’s rude, but —”

“It’s no more nonsense than your own story,” he said. “That isn’t; very well, this isn’t. We all know what fear and trouble are. Very well-when you leave here you’ll think of yourself that I’ve taken this particular trouble over instead of you. You’d do as much for me if I needed it, or for any one. And I will give myself to it. I’ll think of what comes to you, and imagine it, and know it, and be afraid of it. And then, you see, you won’t.”

She looked at him as if she were beginning to understand that at any rate he thought he was talking about a reality, and as she did so something of her feeling for him returned. It was, after all, Peter Stanhope who was talking to her like this. Peter Stanhope was a great poet. Were great poets liars? No. But they might be mistaken. Yes; so might she. She said, very doubtfully: “But I don’t understand. It isn’t your — you haven’t seen it. How can you —”

He indicated the rehearsal before them. “Come,” he said, “if you like that, will you tell me that I must see in order to know? That’s not pride, and if it were it wouldn’t matter. Listen-when you go from here, when you’re alone, when you think you’ll be afraid, let me put myself in your place, and be afraid instead of you.” He sat up and leaned towards her.

“It’s so easy,” he went on, “easy for both of us. It needs only the act. For what can be simpler than for you to think to yourself that since I am there to be troubled instead of you, therefore you needn’t be troubled? And what can be easier than for me to carry a little while a burden that isn’t mine?”

She said, still perplexed at a strange language: “But how can I cease to be troubled? will it leave off coming because I pretend it wants you? Is it your resemblance that hurries up the street?”

“It is not,” he said, “and you shall not pretend at all. The thing itself you may one day meet-never mind that now, but you’ll be free from all distress because that you can pass on to me. Haven’t you heard it said that we ought to bear one another’s burdens?”

“But that means-” she began, and stopped.

“I know,” Stanhope said. “It means listening sympathetically, and thinking unselfishly, and being anxious about, and so on. Well, I don’t say a word against all that; no doubt it helps. But I think when Christ or St. Paul, or whoever said bear, or whatever he Aramaically said instead of bear, he meant something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else. To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you — however sympathetic I may be. And anyhow there’s no need to introduce Christ, unless you wish. It’s a fact of experience. If you give a weight to me, you can’t be carrying it yourself; all I’m asking you to do is to notice that blazing truth. It doesn’t sound very difficult.”

“And if I could,” she said. “If I could do — whatever it is you mean, would I? Would I push my burden on to anybody else?”

“Not if you insist on making a universe for yourself,” he answered. “If you want to disobey and refuse the laws that are common to us all, if you want to live in pride and division and anger, you can. But if you will be part of the best of us, and live and laugh and be ashamed with us, then you must be content to be helped. You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden. I haven’t made the universe and it isn’t my fault. But I’m sure that this is a law of the universe, and not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s. You’ll find it quite easy if you let yourself do it.”

“And what of my self-respect?” she said.

He laughed at her with a tender mockery. “O, if we are of that kind!” he exclaimed. “If you want to respect yourself, if to respect yourself you must go clean against the nature of things, if you must refuse the Omnipotence in order to respect yourself, though why you should want so extremely to respect yourself is more than I can guess, why, go on and respect. Must I apologize for suggesting anything else?”

He mocked her and was silent; for a while she stared back, still irresolute. He held her; presently he held her at command. A long silence had gone by before he spoke again.

“When you are alone,” he said, “remember that I am afraid instead of you, and that I have taken over every kind of worry. Think merely that; say to yourself-‘he is being worried,’ and go on. Remember it is mine. If you do not see it, well; if you do, you will not be afraid. And since you are not afraid. . . . ”

She stood up. “I can’t imagine not being afraid,” she said.

“But you will not be,” he answered, also rising, certainty in his voice, “because you will leave all that to me. Will you please me by remembering that absolutely?”

“I am to remember,” she said, and almost broke into a little trembling laugh, “that you are being worried and terrified instead of me?”

“That I have taken it all over,” he said, “so there is nothing left for you.”

“And if I see it after all?” she asked.

“But not ‘after all’,” he said. “The fact remains-but see how different a fact, if it can’t be dreaded! As of course it can’t — by you. Go now, if you choose, and keep it in your mind till — shall I see you tomorrow? Or ring me up to-night, say about nine, and tell me you are being obedient to the whole fixed nature of things.”

“I’ll ring up,” she said. “But I . . . it sounds so silly.”

“It is silly sooth,” he answered, “and dallies with the innocence of love. Real sooth, real innocence, real love. Go with God.” They shook hands, and slowly, looking back once, just before she reached the lane, she went out of his sight.

Stanhope, turning his eyes from her parting figure, looked at the rehearsal and then settled himself more comfortably in his chair. A certain superficial attention, alert and effective in its degree, lay at the disposal of anyone who might need it, exactly as his body was prepared to draw in its long outstretched legs if anyone wanted to pass. Meanwhile he disposed the rest of his attention according to his promise. He recollected Pauline; he visualized her going along a road, any road; he visualized another Pauline coming to meet her. And as he did so his mind contemplated not the first but the second Pauline; he took trouble to apprehend the vision, he summoned through all his sensations an approaching fear. Deliberately he opened himself to that fear, laying aside for awhile every thought of why he was doing it, forgetting every principle and law, absorbing only the strangeness and the terror of that separate spiritual identity. His more active mind reflected it in an imagination of himself going into his house and seeing himself, but he dismissed that, for he desired to subdue himself not to his own natural sensations, but to hers first, and then to let hers, if so it should happen, be drawn back into his own. But it was necessary first intensely to receive all her spirit’s conflict. He sat on, imagining to himself the long walk with its sinister possibility, the ogreish world lying around, the air with its treachery to all sane appearance. His own eyes began to seek and strain and shrink, his own feet, quiet though actually they were, began to weaken with the necessity of advance upon the road down which the girl was passing. The body of his flesh received her alien terror, his mind carried the burden of her world. The burden was inevitably lighter for him than for her, for the rage of a personal resentment was lacking. He endured her sensitiveness, but not her sin; the substitution there, if indeed there is a substitution, is hidden in the central mystery of Christendom which Christendom itself has never understood, nor can. Since he could not take, nor would have admitted, her hate and rejection, her passion was received into the lucidity of his own spirit. The experience itself, sharply as his body took it, was less sharp for him; not that he willed it so, but because his senses received their communication from within not from without, and there is in all holy imagination from goodwill a quality of greatness which purifies and stabilizes experience. His goodwill went to its utmost, and utmost goodwill can go very far. It went to all but actual vision, and it excluded his intellectual judgment of that vision. Had he been asked, at that moment, for his judgment, he would have answered that he believed sincerely that Pauline believed sincerely that she saw, but whether the sight was actual or not he could not tell. He would have admitted that it might be but a fantastic obsession of her brain. That made no difference to his action. If a man seems to himself to endure the horrors of shipwreck, though he walks on dry land and breathes clear air, the business of his friend is more likely to be to accept those horrors, as he feels them, carrying the burden, than to explain that the burden cannot, as a matter of fact, exist. Given all reasonable talk as well, wherever there is intelligence enough for exchange and substitution to exist, there is place enough for action. Only when the desire of an obsession has carried its subject beyond the interchanges of love can the power of substituted love itself cease. It would have been small use for any adept, however much greater than Peter Stanhope, to have offered his service to Wentworth, where he sat in his own room with the secret creature of substantial illusion at his feet caressing his hand; for from that haunting, even while it was but an unmaterialized anguish within his blood, Wentworth had had no desire, more than the desire of maddened pride, to be exquisitely free.

So devoted to the action of his spirit, Stanhope sat on among the sounds of laughter and gaiety and half-serious wrangles that rose around him. It was not a long while that he was left to sit alone; perhaps Pauline had not more than partly advanced on her return when someone came across to interrupt and consult him. He gave a full attention, for that other concern is not measured by time but by will. To give freedom to both, he would return to his task when opportunity next offered; afterwards, when they had all gone away, and he was alone. But that was rather for the sake-of his own integrity of spirit than that more was needed. The act of substitution was fully made; and if it had been necessarily delayed for years (could that have been), but not by his fault, still its result would have preceded it. In the place of the Omnipotence there is neither before nor after; there is only act.

Pauline went out through the open door of the house, for the Manor was now almost a public building of happiness, and began to make her way towards her home. just as she left, one of the other girls, who was only then arriving for her part, had delayed her with a question, a minute matter about a borrowed pattern for a dress, and possible alterations. Pauline also had given her attention, and now, walking down the road, went on thinking of it — and whether Mary Frobisher would really be well advised to move the left seam an eighth of an inch back, considering Mary Frobisher’s figure. It was another thing for her, and the hang of the frock had been as satisfactory as could be hoped. But Mary — she stopped to smell the pinks in a garden she was passing. Pinks were not very showy flowers, but they had a fragrance. It was perhaps a pity they had so few in their own garden; she had once or twice thought Of asking her grandmother to order the gardener to get some more, since the gardener certainly wouldn’t otherwise do it. But Mrs. Anstruther was always so content with immediate existence that it seemed a shame to bother her about proximate existence. Pauline wondered if she, when she was ninety-seven, would be as little disturbed by the proximate existence of death as her grandmother seemed to be. Or would she be sorry to be compelled to abandon the pleasant wonder of this world, which, when all allowances were made, was a lovely place, and had —

She nearly came to a full stop; then, with slackened steps, she went on, blinking at the sunlight. She realized she had been walking along quite gaily. It was very curious. She looked down the road. Nothing was in sight — except a postman. She wondered whether anything would come into sight. But why was she so careless about it? Her mind leapt back to Stanhope’s promise, and she knew that, whatever the explanation might be, she had been less bothered for the past ten minutes than ever before in any solitude of twenty years. But supposing the thing came? Well, then it came, but till it came why suppose it? If Peter Stanhope was taking trouble, as he was, because he said he would, there was no conceivable reason for her to get into trouble. She had promised to leave it to him; very well, she would. Let him — with all high blessing and gratitude — get on with it. She had promised, she had only to keep her promise.

So she put it to herself, but within herself she knew that, except just to ratify her promise, even that act of her mind was superfluous. it was an act purely of extra delight, an occasion of obedience. She wouldn’t worry; no, because she couldn’t worry. That was the mere truth-she couldn’t worry. She was, then and there, whatever happened later, entirely free. She was, then and there incapable of distress. The world was beautiful about her, and she walked in it, enjoying. He had been quite right; he had simply picked up her parcel. God knew how he had done it, but he had. A thing had, everywhere and all at once, happened. A violent convulsion of the laws of the universe took place in her mind; if this was one of the laws, the universe might be better or worse, but it was certainly quite different from anything she had ever supposed it to be. It was a place whose very fundamentals she had suddenly discovered to be changed. She hadn’t any clear idea of what Stanhope was doing, and that didn’t matter, except that she ought, as soon as possible, to find out and try to understand. That was merely her duty, and might — the thought crossed her mind and was gone — be her very great happiness. Meanwhile, she would go on walking. And if, she came to her self, well she came to her self. No doubt Peter Stanhope would be doing something about it. A kitten on a wall caught her eye; it put its head down; she stretched her arm and stood on tiptoe to stroke it, and so doing for a while she forgot Stanhope and the universe and Pauline.

The rehearsal had long been over, and the Manor left again to its owner. Stanhope had returned to his own proper activity of work, when, exactly as the clock in his study chimed nine, the telephone bell rang.

He took up the receiver.

“Peter Stanhope speaking,” he said.

“Pauline,” said a voice. “You told me to ring you up.”

“I was waiting for you,” he answered. “Well?”

“Well . . . there was a kitten and pinks and a pattern for a frock and a postman who said the rain was holding off,” said the voice, and paused.

“Cautious man,” said Stanhope, and waited.

“Well . . . that was all,” the voice explained.

“Really all?” Stanhope asked.

“Really all,” the voice answered. “I just went home. It is real, I suppose?”

“Entirely,” said Stanhope. “Aren’t you sure of it?”

“Yes, O, yes,” said the voice. “It . . . I . . . I wanted to thank you. I don’t know what you did —”

“But I’ve told you,” he murmured, and was cut short.

“— but I did want to thank you. Only-what happens now? I mean-do I—” It stopped.

“I should think you did,” said Stanhope, gravely. “Don’t you? It seems a perfectly good idea.”

“Ah, but do you mean that?” she protested. “It looks so like taking advantage.”

“You’ll be as involved morally as you are verbally, if you talk like that,” he said. “Taking advantage! O my dear girl! Don’t be so silly! You’ve got your own job to do.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Being ready to meet it,” he answered. “It’ll be quite simple, no doubt, and even delightful. But if I were you I’d keep my faculties quiet for that. If meeting is a pleasure, as we so often tell people, you may as well enjoy the pleasure.”

“I hadn’t really thought of it being that,” said the voice.

“But now?” he asked.

“Yes . . . I . . . I suppose it might,” she said.

“Do you see any reason whatever why it shouldn’t? Since we’re agreed you won’t have any opportunity to be afraid,” he added.

“It’s funny,” she said, after another pause, “but do you know I feel as if I’d never really looked at it till now. At least, perhaps the first time, when I was quite small, but I was always shut up when I talked about it, and then sometimes I saw it when . . . when I didn’t like it.”

“I don’t quite follow,” Stanhope said. “When you didn’t like it?”

He couldn’t see the blush that held Pauline as she sat by the telephone table, but he heard the voice become smaller and softer as she said, “When I wasn’t being very good. There wasn’t much money in the house, and once there was a shilling my mother lost, and then there were sweets. It was just after I’d bought the sweets that I saw it coming once. It was horrid to see it just then, but it was beastly of me, I know.”

“Well, that’s as may be,” Stanhope said. “The limits of theft are a high casuistical problem. Read Pascal and the Jesuits — especially the Jesuits, who were more ordinary and more sensible. The triumph of the bourgeois.”

“But I knew it was wrong,” Pauline exclaimed.

“Still your knowledge may have been wrong,” Stanhope demurred. “However, don’t let’s argue that. I see what you mean. Self-respect and all that. Well, it won’t do you any harm to feel it knows you. Much the best thing, in fact.”

“Y-yes,” Pauline said. “Yes-I do think so really. And I’m not to worry?”

“You are most emphatically to remember that I’ll do the worrying,” Stanhope said. “Ring me up at any time-day or night; only if no one answers at night remember that, as Miss, Fox so rightly told us, sleep is good, and sleep will undoubtedly be here. But sleep isn’t separation in the Omnipotence. Go in peace, and wish me the same, for friendship’s sake.”

“O how can I?” she said, startled. “How can I wish peace to you? You are peace.”

“M’m,” Stanhope said. “But the more if you will have it so. Try.”

“Good night then,” she answered slowly. “Good night. Thank you. Go . . . in peace.”

Her voice had faltered so that she could hardly speak the words, and when she rose from her seat she was on fire from head to foot. Guilt or shame, servile fear or holy fear, adoration or desperation of obedience, it burned through her to a point of physical pain. The blood rode in her face and she panted a little in the heat. She could not have answered, had anyone spoken to her; her tongue seemed to have said its last words on earth. Never, never, her heart sang, let her speak again, never let the silence that followed her daring, her presumptuous invocation, be broken. It had been compelled, she had been commanded; a god had been with her-not Peter Stanhope, but whatever answered him from her depth.

She looked at her watch; it was not yet time for her evening visit to her grandmother.

She looked round; a book lay on the table. It was the volume of Foxe with the account of her ancestor’s martyrdom; Mrs. Anstruther had been reading it again. She walked to it, and with one hand, the knuckles of the other pressed against her slowly cooling cheek, turned the pages to find the place. Something from it was vaguely coming to her mind. “They set him to the stake and put the fire to the wood, and as the fire got hold of him he gave a great cry and said, I have seen the salvation of my God. . . . The Lord had done great things for him there in the midst of the fire.” The Lord, she thought, made a habit of doing things in the midst of a fire; he had just brought her to say “Go in peace” in another. She glowed again to think of it. But it was the first phrase she had looked for; “I have seen the salvation”. It had never occurred to her, any time she had read or remembered the martyrdom, that Struther was anything but a demented fanatic; a faint distaste that she should come of his blood had touched her. It now occurred to her that Struther might have been talking flat realism. She put the book down, and looked out of the window. It was-all of a sudden-remarkably easy to look out of the window. She might even walk down to the gate and look at the street. The parcel was completely in some one else’s care, and all she had to do was to leave it. She hoped it was not troublesome to Peter Stanhope, but it wouldn’t be. He and whatever he meant by the Omnipotence would manage it quite well between them. Perhaps, later on, she could give the omnipotence a hand with some other burden; everyone carrying everyone else’s, like the Scilly Islanders taking in each other’s washing. Well, and at that, if it were tiresome and horrible to wash your own clothes and easy and happy to wash someone else Is, the Scilly Islanders might be intelligent enough. “Change here for Scilly,” she said aloud as she came to the gate.

“My dear!” said a voice beside her.

Pauline jumped. it was a fairly high wall, and she had been preoccupied; still, she ought to have seen the woman who was standing outside, alone against the wall on her left. For a moment something jarred, but she recovered. She said, “Oh, good evening, Mrs. Sammile. I didn’t see you.”

The other peered at her. “How’s your grandmother?” she asked.

“Rather weaker, I’m afraid,” Pauline said. “It’s kind of you to ask.”

“And how are you?” Lily Sammile went on. “I’ve been —” but Pauline unintentionally cut through the sentence.

“Very well indeed,” she murmured, with a deep breath of pleasure. “Isn’t it a lovely night?”

The other woman strained a little forward, as if, even in the June evening, she could not see her clearly. She said, “I haven’t seen you about lately: you haven’t wanted to see me. I thought perhaps you might.”

Pauline looked back smiling. How, in this quietness of spirit, could she have thought she wanted anything changed? But the old lady had wanted to help, and though now she did not need the help, the goodwill remained. She said, leaning over the gate: “Oh, I’m much better now.”

“That’s good,” the other woman said. “But take care of yourself. Think of yourself; be careful of yourself. I could make you perfectly safe and perfectly happy at the same time. You really haven’t any idea of how happy you could be.”

Her voice was infinitely softer than Pauline could remember it. In the full light of day, the other woman had seemed to her slightly hard, her voice a light third hammer to her feet. She pattered everywhere, upstairs, downstairs, in my lady’s chamber, in any chamber; but now her figure was dim and her feet still, and her voice soft. As soft as the dust the evening wind was blowing down the street. Dust of the dead, dust of the Struther who had died in flame. Had he been happy? happy? happy? Pauline was not sure whether she or her companion had spoken the word again, but it hung in the air, floating through it above, and the dust was stirred below, and a little dizziness took her and passed. Lazily she swung the gate.

She said, as if to draw down the floating mist: “Happy? I . . . I happy?”

The other murmured: “Happy, rich. Insatiate, yet satisfied. How delicious everything would be! I could tell you tales that would shut everything but yourself out. Wouldn’t you like to be happy? If there’s anything that worries you, I can shut it away from you. Think what you might be missing.”

Pauline said: “I don’t understand.”

The other went on: “My dear, it’s so simple. If you will come with me, I can fill you, fill your body with any sense you choose. I can make you feel whatever you’d choose to be. I can give you certainty of joy for every moment of life. Secretly, secretly; no other soul-no other living soul.”

Pauline tingled as she listened. Shut up within herself — shut up till that very day with fear and duty for only companions — with silence and forbearance as only possibilities — she felt a vague thrill of promised delight. Against it her release that day began already to seem provisional and weak. She had found calm, certainly; only ten minutes earlier that calm had seemed to her more than she could ever have hoped. She loved it still; she owed to it this interval of indulgent communion with something other than calm. The communion threatened the calm with a more entrancing sensation of bliss; she felt almost that she had too rashly abandoned her tribulation for a substitute that was but a cold gift, when warm splendour had been waiting to enrapture her. In the very strength of her new-found security she leaned from it, as from the house itself; as within a tower of peace, with deliberate purpose she swung the gate more wide. Inconceivably she all but regretted the fear that would have been an excuse, even a just reason, for accepting a promise of more excitement of satisfaction than peace and freedom could give or could excuse. Peace had given her new judgment, and judgment began to lament her peace. If she opened the gate, if the far vision of her returning vision gave her speed and strength to leap from it to this more thrilling refuge! And while her heart beat more quickly and her mind laboured at once to know and not to know its desires, a voice slid into her ear, teasing her, speeding her blood, provoking her purpose. It spoke of sights and sounds, touches and thrills, and of entire oblivion of harm; nothing was to be that she did not will, and everything that she willed, to the utmost fullness of her heart, should be. She would be enough for herself. She could dream for ever, and her dream should for ever be made real. “Come soon,” it said, “come now. I’ll wait for you here. In a few minutes you’ll be free, and then you’ll come; you shall be back soon. Give me your hand and I’ll give you a foretaste now.” A hand came into hers, a pulse against her wrist beat with significance of breathless abandonment to delirious joy. She delayed in a tremulous and pleasurable longing.

“But how?” she murmured, “how can all this happen? how do I know what I want? I’ve never thought . . . I don’t know anyone . . . and to be alone. . . . ”

“Give me your hand,” the other said, “then come and dream, till you discover, so soon, the ripeness of your dream.” She paused, and added, “You’ll never have to do anything for others any more.”

It was the last touch, and false, false because of the habit of her past and because of Stanhope’s promise. The fountain of beauty had sprung upward in a last thrust; it broke against the arched roof of his world, and the shock stung her into coldness. Never have to do anything — and she had been promising herself that she would carry someone’s parcel as hers had been carried, that she would be what he said she could. Like it or not, it had been an oath; rash or wise it stood.

“An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.” She had been reading more verse of late, since she had had to speak Stanhope’s, and the holy words engulfed her in the sound which was so much more than she. “An oath, an oath. . . . Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?” The wind, rising as if to a storm, screamed “perjury” through the sky that held the Hill and all; false, false! she perjured in that last false gleam. She was come; “false, fleeting, perjured Clarence! Seize on him, Furies. . . . The word, Antaean, sprang hundred-voiced around her, and held her by every gripping voice. Perjury, on her soul and in her blood, if now she slipped to buy sweets with money that was not hers; never, till it was hers in all love and princely good, by gift and gift and gift beyond excelling gift, in no secrecy of greed but all glory of public exchange, law of the universe and herself a child of the universe. Never till he — not Pascal nor the Jesuits nor the old chattering pattering woman but he; not moonlight or mist or clouding dust but he; not any power in earth or heaven but he or the peace she had been made bold to bid him-till they bade her take with all her heart what nothing could then forbid. An oath, an oath, an oath in heaven, and heaven known in the bright oath itself, where two loves struck together, and the serene light of substitution shone, beyond her understanding but not beyond her deed. She flung the gate shut, and snatched her hands away, and as it clanged she was standing upright, her body a guard flung out on the frontier of her soul. The other woman was at the gate — of garden or world or soul — leaning to but not over it, speaking hurriedly, wildly, and the voice rising on the wind and torn and flung on the wind: “Everything, anything; anything, everything; kindness to me . . . help to me . . . nothing to do for others, nothing to do with others . . . everything, everything . . . ”

The door behind her was opened; the maid’s voice said doubtfully: “Miss Pauline?”

Pauline, rigid at her post, said, turning her head a little: “You wanted me?”

Phoebe murmured: “Your grandmother’s asking for you, Miss Pauline, if you could come.”

Pauline said, “I’m coming.” She looked over the gate; she added in a voice hard with an unreasoning hostility: “Good night.” She ran in.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/descent-into-hell/chapter6.html

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