Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Seven

Junction of Travellers

The dead man walked in his dead town. It was still, quiet and deserted; he too was quiet in it. He had now, for long, no need to worry. Nagging voice and niggling hunger were gone. It was heaven enough; he sought nothing else. Dead or alive, or neither dead nor alive, he was free from the sick fear which the Republic had imposed on him. The stigmata of his oppression burned and ached no more. His tired feet had lightness; his worn form energy. He did not know or care if he were in the body or out of the body. For the first time he needed nothing, and nothing distressed him. He walked, sat, stretched himself out. He-did not sleep, for he did not need sleep. Sometimes he wondered a little that he was never hungry or thirsty. It was an odd place he was in, but he did not grow tired of it any more than of walking through it. So much the better if he were not hungry or thirsty or tired. As for luxuries, he could not have missed them, for he had never had them, nor, then and there, was it permitted him to feel any want.

The faint light persisted. Time had no measurement except by the slow growth of his interior quiet, and to him none. All the capacities of satisfaction in one ordinary life, which have their fulfillment in many ways, in him there were concentrated on that quiet. Monotony could not exist where all duration was a slow encouragement of rest. Presently he even found himself looking up into the sky for the moon. The moon in his mind was, since his death, connected with the world he had known, with his single room and his wife, his enemies and tyrants. He felt, now safe, from it; he seriously expected its appearance, knowing that he was free. If the big pale ball had floated up, a balloon in which everything harmful was borne away, busy, but not with him, he would have been mildly pleased. He knew that that balloon was for ever cut off from him. Moon, balloon, it could not drop anyone among these shells of houses. If it did, whoever it dropped would be caught in the shells. He had been a good-tempered little victim, but there were one or two in the past whom he could placidly have borne to see scrabbling and thrusting at the scaffolding and cage. He did not exactly resent, in that quiet, anything they had done-a foreman, a mate, a brother, a wife, but perhaps, as the unmeasured time did pass, he felt a little more strongly that he would enjoy his freedom more if he saw them defeated. In the past they had taken everything from him. It would not be unpleasant now to see them raging with a wish to get at him, and, in that air, defeated.

He sat opposite his ladder, after a long, long while, and let the fancy grow. It was then that he first noticed a change. The light was growing stronger. It was, again, a long while between the first faintest hint of it and any notice he took, and again between his first faint wonder and his belief, and again between belief and certainty. At the end of all those long periods, there was not much perceptible difference in the sky. Centuries passed before that difference grew more marked, but that too came. He had sat watching it, dimly, peacefully. He rose then, not quickly but more quickly than he had been used to move. He stirred with a hardly discernible unease.

It seemed as if the light were spreading steadily down, from somewhere away in the height. He did not positively see that any patch of sky was whiter than the rest, but he was looking for such a patch. The increase must have a centre of expansion. It must come from somewhere. No moon, no sun, no cause of illumination. Only sometimes a kind of wave of movement passed down the sky, and then it was lighter. He did not like it.

If he had asked himself why, he could not have easily answered. It did not disturb his quiet. He was as lonely and peaceful as before. No sound was in his City, foot or voice. But vaguely the light distracted him from his dim pleasure of imagining, imagining disappointment. His imagination could hardly, by ordinary standards, be said to be good or bad. It was a pleasure in others’ anger, and bad; but the anger was that of tyrannical malice, and the imagined disappointment of it was good. Some such austere knowledge the Divine John saw in heaven, where disappointed hell is spread and smokes before the Lamb. But the Lamb and the angels do not imagine hell to satisfy their lust, nor do he nor the angels determine it, but only those in hell; if it is, it is a fact, and, therefore, a fact of joy. In that peace which had been heaven to the vagrant, he had begun to indulge a fancy of his own; he went beyond the fact to colour the fact.

Light grew. He began to walk. He had done so, often enough, through that great period of recreation, for pure pleasure of change. Now he had, for the first time, a purpose unacknowledged. He wished to escape the light. It was desirable that he should still be left alone. He did not trust the light to let him alone. It was desirable that he should be free to make pictures for himself and to tell himself tales. He did not trust the light to let him do it. He moved gently; there was no need, here, to run. The need that was not concealed from him, his first inclination to run. He had run often enough for others’ pleasure, but this was the first time he had been tempted to run for his own.

The light still gently spread. As gently he went away from it, down the hill. His choice was in this direction; it was brightest, by a little, at the top. As, through a still unmeasured period, he went drifting, changes came on the hill. He did not at first notice them. Long as he had wandered, he had not marked detail of building there. But, unnoticed, details had altered. It was now a town half-built, not ruined. When he had climbed that skeleton shape of a house, or of himself, he had done so in the midst of a devastation. As he went away from it towards the bottom the devastation became incomplete erection. Houses were unfinished, roads unmade, yet they were houses and roads. Roofs were on, scaffolding gone. The change was irregular, more as if some plants had outgrown others than as if order had been established by man. He went soundlessly down the slope of the thickening vegetation, and as on the bare height the light was fullest, so here instead of light, shadows grew thicker. Between them the pallid light of his experience grew stronger by contrast. He would not look at the new light; there was increased for him by opposition the presence of the old. He had gone some way, and some time, unnoticing, inclined to linger upon his tales and dreams, when he was startled into knowledge. He had turned his back upon light and had not remarked erection. He saw suddenly, at a distance in front of him, a flash. He stopped and stared. It was no longer a flash but a gleam. He was looking at, far off, the reflection of light upon glass — of what he would, in lost days, have called the sun upon a window.

A thrust of fear took him; he could not, for a moment, go on. He stood blinking; after a while, he turned his head. There was behind him a long space of shadows and pale light, but beyond that, away beyond the house where he had died, there was a broad stretch of high ground, bare and rocky, rising higher than he had ever thought, and all bright with, he supposed, the sun. A rich, golden splendour, beyond all, at the height of all, played flashing upon some other glittering surface; it was not glass there, but ice. He stared back as he had stared forward. He could not dare return to that, also he was unwilling to go on down towards the gleaming window below. That meant the world; he could not, after so much peace, return to the world. Why could he not sit and imagine a moon and thwarted creatures dropped from the moon into a world that mocked them? It was not much to ask.

It was too much; he could not have it. False as the Republic had been to him, making his life dreadful, he had not deserved, or he could not have, an infinity of recompense. He could not have this in utter exchange for that. Exchange had been given; temporal justice, for what it is worth, done. Now incidents were no more counted, on this side or the other. He must take the whole — with every swiftness of the Mercy, but the whole he must have.

He saw that the exhibition of light was moving towards him. It had reached the house where he had died. He noticed, even in his alarm, that the buildings now ended there. In his earlier wanderings he had gone among the ruins both above and below it, but now the bare rock rose above — or ice, as he had first thought. It went up, in blocks and irregularities of surface, until, some distance beyond, it opened on one broad sweep, smooth and glittering, rounding towards the top of the Hill; upon it, by some trick of sight, the sunlight seemed active. It was not changed, but it ran. It hastened in sudden charges of intensity, now across, now down. The unchanging rock beneath the unchanging sun responded to that countermarching, evoked into apparent reordination. It was perhaps this which terrified him, for there the earth was earth still and yet alive. In the strict sense of the words it was living stone.

He stood for some minutes staring, and entranced. But at some sudden charge downwards from the height towards the house, and him beyond it, he broke. He gave a little cry, and ran. He ran down towards the bottom of the Hill, among the houses, towards that house where the glass was. As he ran he saw, for the first time since he had entered that world, other forms, inhabitants of a state for which there were no doubt many names, scientific, psychological, theological. He did not know the names; he knew the fact.

The return of time upon itself, which is in the nature of death, had caught him. Margaret Anstruther had, in a vision within a dream, decided upon death, not merely in her own world but in that other. Her most interior heart had decided, and the choice was so profound that her past experiences and opacities could only obey. She had no work of her present union with herself to achieve; that was done. But this man had died from and in the body only. Because he had had it all but forced on him, he had had opportunity to recover. His recovery had brought to him a chance of love. Because he had never chosen love, he did not choose it then. Because he had never had an opportunity to choose love, nor effectively heard the intolerable gospel proclaimed, he was to be offered it again, and now as salvation. But first the faint hints of damnation were permitted to appear.

He was running down a street. It was a street that closed in on him. He did not notice, in his haste, that it was a street much like those in which most of his life had been spent. He saw, in front of him, at a great distance, two living forms, a man and a girl; at which he ran with increased speed. Since he had begun to go down the Hill he had lost his content in being alone; he smelt solitude as if it were the odour of bare rock, and he hated it. He heard, more vividly with every step, no sound. He could not hear those forms walking, but he saw them; it was enough; he ran. He was catching them-up, running very fast through his old life to do it. When he was within a hundred yards the girl looked over her shoulder. He checked in midpace, his foot heavily thudding down, and he almost falling. He saw, with sharp clarity, the face of the girl who had been his wife. Her mouth was opening and shutting on words, though the words were silent. It had always been opening and shutting. At once, without looking round, the figure arm in arm with hers released itself, stopped, and as if moving by the direction of that busily talking mouth, took’ a step or two backwards. Then it paused, and with a weary care began slowly to turn itself round. The dead man saw the movement. It became terribly important that he should escape before the youth he had been caught him and dragged him in or make a third with them, and to listen again to that hated and loathed voice — always perhaps; the prisoner of those two arms, the result and victim of his early desire. He ran hastily back again up the street.

Presently he glanced behind him, and could not see them. He trotted a little farther, looked round again, saw the street empty-the street that was recovering the appearance of a street upon the Hill-and dropped to a walk. Only he could not go on right to the end, though he had come thence, for he could see across it a beam of faint but growing sun, as the ocean beams at the end of a road. He did not think of the image, for he had not seen the sea, since his childhood; and that time would not be remembered until he reached it. An instinct, none the less, warned him; so he did not make his way to where, ready for him, in that twisting maze of streets and times, a gutter child played on his only seaside holiday, and cried because a bigger boy had bullied him. Sea or sun-sun to him-it was the light he wished to avoid. He hesitated, and took a side turning, where under the eaves some darkness was left.

The image was growing more complex and more crowded, for, as if the descending light, the spreading harshness of rock and ice, crowded them and the streets grew shorter, more involved, themselves more populous with figures. Once it was a sneering foreman, who drove his face-hidden shape towards him; once — how he got there he did not know — it was someone’s back on a ladder carrying a rope, going up no doubt, but perhaps coming down to throw the rope round him before he slipped away. Once he turned from a figure leaning against a lamp-post, quite still, with a stealthy suspense, as if it might dodge round the lamp-post, pretending that the post hid what it could not hide, and making to play a game that was not a kind game. And each time he slipped away or turned away, it was more like running away, and continually he would see, here and there in the distance, the beam of light on icy rock and sniff the bitter smell of the place of no return.

So presently he was running very quickly, with a sense that they were now after him. They had begun to be bolder, they were leaning out of windows, stumbling out of streets, lurching, shambling, toiling after him. He had read somewhere Of a man being trampled to death, and he thought of that now, only he could not envisage death, any more than Pauline the end of luxurious dream. He could only think of trampling He ran faster then, for he did not see how he would ever be able to get up, those apparitions of his terror would be too many and too strong. For the first time in that world he began to feel exhausted; and now the streets were slipping by, and the feet were coming up, and in a central daze that dance of time and truth all round him, he felt himself stopping. He inwardly consented; he stood still.

As he did so, there came about him also a cessation. The street was still; the feet silent. He drew a breath. He saw in front of him a house, and at a window, a window with glass, where no light gleamed, he saw a face, the face of an old woman, whom never in all his life had he seen before. He saw her as a ghost in the shadow, within the glass, but the glass was only a kind of faint veil — of ceremony or of habit, though he did not think of it so. He felt it did not matter, for he and the other were looking directly at each other. He wanted to speak; he could not find words to utter or control. He broke into a cry, a little wail, such as many legends have recorded and many jokes mocked. He said: “Ah! ah!” and did not think it could be heard.

The old face looked at him, and he was trembling violently, shaking to see the apparitions of this world’s living, as they shake to see the phantasms of the dead. He knew he was not afraid, as they are often afraid; this was almost the first face he had seen, in the body or out of the body, of which he was not afraid. Fear, which separates man from man, and drives some to be hostile, and some tyrannical, and some even to be friendly, and so with spirits of that state of deathly time, abandoned him. Fear, which never but in love deserts mortal man, deserted him there. Only he could not do or say any more. He stared, hungrily, hopefully. He waited, selfishly certain she would go, sweetly sure she would stay. She said, as he waited: “My dear, how tired you look!”

To Margaret herself the images were becoming confused. She did not, for a good part of the time, know of any, being engaged merely, beyond her own consciousness, in passing through that experience which in her dream had meant crawling over the stretch of open rock. Some hint of memory of it recurred to her at moments. She had on this evening known nothing but a faint sense of slow dragging in her limbs, an uneasiness in her body as if it lay rough, a labouring in her breath as if she toiled. Then she had felt herself lying on rock, holding a spike of rock, and instinctively knew she had to do something, and clasped the spike with energy-it had to do with Pauline; and a bell — the great bell of the dead, or the bell of the living on the Hill, or her own little bell, or all at once — had rung; and as it did so, she saw a strange face looking at her from a crevice of darkness below. Then she knew it; it was the face of the strange man in her dream. She was aware that Pauline was coming over the rock through a door of great stones like Stonehenge, but Pauline was behind, and across in front of a gleam of mountain light that pierced her room was the shadow of the weary and frightened face. She said with a fresh spring of pure love, as if to Pauline or Phoebe or anyone: “My dear, how tired you look!”

He tried to answer, to thank her, to tell her more, to learn salvation from her. His life, in and out of the body, had forgotten the time when a woman’s voice had last sounded with friendship in his ears. He wanted to explain. his face was neither light nor darkness but more tolerable and deeper than either, as, he felt it, for it had leaned towards him in love. He made efforts to speak, and seemed to himself to do no more than cry out again, wordlessly and wailingly. The sound he made communicated his fear, and she answered him from her withdrawn experience of death, as from his less withdrawn spirit of poetry Stanhope had answered Pauline — nothing could be worth such distress. Or nothing, at least, but one thing-the coming out of it into tender joy. She said: “But wait: wait for it.”

Pauline had come in from the garden, and as she ran through the hall she was furiously angry with herself. She did not very well know what the woman in the street had offered, beyond indefinable sweet and thrilling excitements. But she felt, her foot on the first stair, that she had regretted, that she had grudged and been aggrieved with, the new change in her life. She had almost, if by God’s mercy not quite, wished that Peter Stanhope had not interfered. No range of invective — and she had a pretty, if secret, range — sufficed her for herself. She struck her hand against the wall as she ran, and wished that it was her head, or that someone — Stanhope for preference, but it didn’t much matter; anyone would do — would pick her up and throw her violently over the banisters to the floor below, knocking the breath out of her body, and leaving her bruised and gasping, looking like the fool she was. She put all herself into despising herself, and her scorn rode triumphant through her: a good thing under direction, but dangerous to the lonely soul. So ambiguously repentant, she came into her grandmother’s room, and saw suddenly that the justice of the universe had taken her earlier word, and abandoned her.

It was not so, but at the window there was a face; and she had, in the first shock, supposed it was hers. The obsession of her visitation returned, through the double gate of her repining and her rage. It was coming, it was come, it was here. Her wild spirit sickened in her; and as she felt its power dissolve, she sprang to the other power the knowledge of which, at least, her anger had preserved. Ashamed of betrayal, unashamed of repentance and dependence, she sprang. She knew with all her soul’s consent that Peter Stanhope had taken over her fear; was, now, one with it; and it was not, for he was in power over it. Among the leaves of his eternal forest he set it, and turned it also to everlasting verse. Evading or not evading, repining or not repining, raging or not raging, she was Periel; she was the least of the things he had created new; ecce, omnia nova facio. She was a line of his verse, and beyond that-for the thought of him took that high romantic self-annihilation and annihilated it in turn — she was herself in all freedom and courage. She was herself, for the meeting with herself. She stepped forward-lightly, almost with laughter. It was not yet she.

As she gazed, she heard her grandmother speak. The room, for those three spirits, had become a place on the unseen mountain. they inhabited a steep. The rock was in them, and they in it. In Margaret Anstruther it lived; it began to Put out its energy of intellectual love. At least to the dead man it was felt as love, as love that loved him, as he longingly and unknowingly desired. This holy and happy thing was all that could be meant by God: it was love and power. Tender to the least of its creatures, it submitted itself to his need, but it is itself always that it submits, and as he received it from those eyes and the sound of that voice he knew that another thing awaited him-his wife, or the light, or some renewal of his earlier death. Universal, it demanded universality. The peace communicated there was of a different kind from the earlier revival of rest. And the woman said: “It’s done already; you’ve only got to look for it.”

As Pauline had moved forward, the face at the window disappeared from her sight. She drew breath; it had been an accident of light; there had been no face. She turned to look at her grandmother, and saw her lying very still, her eyes on the window as if she could still see something there. Quiet as she lay, she was in action. Her look, her voice, showed it: her voice, for she spoke, but very low, and Pauline could not hear the words. She caught the sound; lightly she threw herself on her knees by the bed-and half fulfilled her earlier passionate desire for subordination. For the first time in her young distracted life her energy leapt to a natural freedom of love. She ran swiftly down the way her master had laid open; she said, in words almost identical with his: “Let me do something, let me carry it. Darling, do let me help.” Margaret gave her hand a small gentle pressure, but kept her eyes beyond her still.

The silence in that place became positive with their energies, and its own. The three spirits were locked together, in the capacity of Margaret’s living stone. The room about them, as if the stillness expressed its nature in another mode, grew sharply and suddenly cold, Pauline’s mind took it as the occasional sharp alteration of a summer evening; she moved to go and turn on the electric fire, for fear her grandmother should feel the chill, and that natural act, in her new good will, was no less than any high offer of goodness and grace. But Margaret knew the other natural atmosphere of the icy mountain, where earthly air was thin in the life of solitude and peak. It was the sharp promise of fruition — her prerogative was to enter that transforming chill. The dead man also felt it, and tried to speak, to be grateful, to adore, to say he would wait for it and for the light. He only moaned a little, a moan not quite of pain, but of intention and the first faint wellings of recognized obedience and love. All his past efforts of good temper and kindness were in it; they had seemed to be lost; and they lived.

But that moan was not only his. As if the sound released something greater than itself, another moan answered it. The silence groaned. They heard it. The supernatural mountain on which they stood shook and there went through Battle Hill itself the slightest vibration from that other quaking, so that all over it china tinkled, and papers moved, and an occasional ill-balanced ornament fell. Pauline stood still and straight. Margaret shut her eyes and sank more deeply into her pillow. @The dead man felt it and was drawn back away from that window into his own world of being, where also something suffered and was free. The groan was at once dereliction of power and creation of power. In it, far off, beyond vision in the depths of all the worlds, a god, unamenable to death, awhile endured and died.

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