Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eight

Dress Rehearsal

Among the many individualized forms, dead or living, upon the Hill, there was one neither dead nor living. It was the creature which had lingered outside the illusion of Eden for the man who had consented to its company. It had neither intellect nor imagination; it could not criticize or create, for the life of its substance was only the magical apparition of its father’s desires. It is said in the old tales that the devil longs to become incarnate that he may challenge the Divine Word in his own chosen house of flesh and that he therefore once desired and overshadowed a maid. But even at the moment of conception a mystical baptism fell on the child, and the devil was cast out of his progeny at the moment of entrance. He who was born of that purified intercourse with angelic sacrilege was Merlin, who, wisest of magicians, prophesied and prefigured the Grail-quest, and built a chapel to serve the Table till Logres came to an end, and the Merciful Child Galahad discovered the union in a Mass of the Holy Ghost which was sung by Messias among a great company of angels. Since that frustrating transubstantiation the devil has never come near to dominion over a mortal woman. His incubi and succubi which tempt and torment the piety of anchorites, are phantasms, evoked from and clouded and thickened with the dust of the earth or the sweat of the body or the shed seed of man or the water of ocean, so as to bewilder and deceive longing eyes and eager hands.

The shape of Lawrence Wentworth’s desire had emerged from the power of his body. He had assented to that making, and again, outside the garden of satisfied dreams, he had assented to the company of the shape which could not be except by his will and was imperceptibly to possess his will. Image without incarnation, it was the delight of his incarnation for it was without any of the things that troubled him in the incarnation of the beloved. He could exercise upon it all arts but one; he could not ever discover by it or practise towards it the freedom of love. A man cannot love himself, he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize without purpose. The great gift which this simple idolatry of self gives is lack of further purpose; it is, the saints tell us, a somewhat similar thing that exists in those wholly possessed by their End; it is, human experience shows, the most exquisite delight in the interchanges of romantic love. But in all loves but one there are counterpointing times of purposes; in this only there are none.

They had gone down the hill together, the man and that creature of illusion which had grown like the flowers of Eastern magic between the covering and uncovering of a seed. The feminine offspring of his masculinity clung to him, pressing her shoulder against him, turning eyes of adoration on him, stroking his fingers with her own. The seeming trance prolonged itself in her in proportion as it passed from his own senses; he could plunge again into its content whenever the creature looked at or spoke to him. Their betrothal had been celebrated thus before they began to walk down the hill, and in that betrothal a fraction of his intelligence had slept never to wake. During the slow walk his child dallied with his senses and had an exquisite perception of his needs. Adela walked by him and cajoled him-in the prettiest way-to love her. He was approached, appeased, flattered, entreated. There flowed into him from the creature by his side the sensation of his absolute power to satisfy her. It was what he had vehemently and in secret desired-to have his own way under the pretext of giving her hers. This was the seed which grew in his spirit and from which in turn his spirit grew-the core of the fruit and also the fruit of the core. The vagrant of matter murmured to him; it surrounded him with devotion, as very well it could, seeing what the only reality of its devotion was. He did not need to say much, nor himself to initiate approach. It took all that activity upon itself; and the sweet reproaches which its mouth offered him for having misunderstood and neglected and hurt it were balm to his mind. He had hurt her — then he had not been hurt or she did not know it. He was wanted — then he need not trouble to want or to know he wanted. He was entreated by physical endearments-in languorous joy he consented to gratify the awful ambiguity of his desire.

At his own gate they had paused. There, for a little, he almost recovered himself; his habitual caution leapt into action. He thought for himself. “Suppose anyone saw us?” and looked anxiously up at the windows. They were dark; his servants were asleep in their own rooms at the back of the house. He glanced up and down the road; no one was about. But his caution, having struck one note, passed to another; he looked down at the creature who stood opposite him. It was Adela in every point, every member and article: its hair, its round ears, its full face, its plump hands, its square nails, its pink palms, its gestures, its glances. Only that appealing softness was new, and by that same appealing softness he knew clearly for an instant that it was not Adela who had returned by his side.

He stared at it and a shudder seized him; he took a half-step away, and the first chance of escape was offered. He wondered, desperately, perhaps in a little hope, if it would say good-night and go away. His hand was on the latch of the gate, yet he hesitated to do anything so certain as to go sharply through. He looked up and down the street; perhaps someone would come. He had never before wanted to see Hugh Prescott; now he did. If Hugh would come and slip his arm through Adela’s and take her away! But Hugh could not save him unless he wanted the thing that was Hugh’s, and not this other thing. The thought of Hugh had done all it could when it reminded him of the difference between the real and the unreal Adela. He must face jealousy, deprival, loss, if he would be saved. He fled from that offer, and with a sudden snarl clutched his companion by the arm. It leaned closer to him, and otherwise circumstance lay still. It yearned to him as @if it feared to be disappointed, which indeed at the bottom of his heart he infinitely did. It put one hand upon his heart. It said, in a breathless whisper: “You won’t send me away?” Adela and his refusal to know Adela in relation to Hugh rose in him; sensuality and jealousy twined. He swung open the gate. It said: “Be kind to me, be whatever you want, but don’t send me away.” He had never been able to dream of a voice so full of passion and passion for him. The hand that smoothed his heart was the hand that had lain in Hugh’s, yet it was not; he crushed it in his own, relieved from agony and released to a pretended vengeance. His mind became giddy. He caught the whole form tighter, lest indeed Hugh should come striding out of the night, tall as a house, and stretch out a huge animal hand, and pull her from his arm. He moved to the threshold; as if it swooned against him it drooped there with all its weight upon his heart and side. He muttered thickly: “Come on, come on,” but it seemed past movement. Its voice still murmured incoherent passion, but its limbs were without strength to take the step. He said: “Must I carry you?” and the head fell back, and the voice in a trance of abandonment answered: “Carry me, carry me.” He gathered it to his arms and lifted it; it lay there, no more than an easy weight.

As he moved, his mind spoke, or more than his mind. The whole air of the Hill said in his ear, with a crisp intelligence: “You fool, that’s not Adela; you couldn’t carry Adela. What do you think you’ll get out of anything that isn’t Adela?” He recognized well enough that the real Adela might have given him considerable trouble to lift, but his whole damnation was that he would not choose the trouble to lift the real Adela. This thing was light in his arms, though solid to his heart, and his brain was dazed by its whispers. He came over the threshold and when they had entered the garden it found its feet again, and went along with him to the complacency of his dream.

Since that night it had come to him often, as on that night it had been all he could desire. it had been an ape of love’s vitality, and a parody also of its morality. It possessed a semblance of initiative, and it had appeased, as is all lovers’ duty, the fantasies of his heart; it had fawned on him and provoked him. He had no need of the devices against fertility which, wisely or unwisely, the terrible dilemmas of men drive them to use, for he consummated a marriage whose infertility was assured. This, which it made clear to him for his satisfaction, a little troubled him, for it reminded him, until he managed to forget, of its true nature. He was outraging his intelligence with this invited deceit, and he did not wish to know it. But it passed, for he was given good measure after his kind. There was no lack of invention and pleasure, for the other forming of sterile growth from sterile root was far off, lying in the necessity of the stir of distant leaves on the side of the mountain where he had no thought to come.

The days went by, and still he was consoled. In the mornings it had gone; in the early summer dawns it wakened him to whisper farewells, and his heavy drugged sleep only understood that here also it was fulfilling his need. He had not at first very clearly understood why or where it was going, but he did not then care, for it promised him, leaning naked over him, that it would always return. Whether it were then Adela or a being like Adela he was too full of slumber to care; it was going; he need not trouble; for whenever he needed her, it would return. If it were Adela, she ought to get away; if it were not Adela, it ought still to go away, because there would be the morning and the world. . . . So much his drowsiness let through to him; and it went, showing him itself, in a faithful copy of his half-realized wishes, to the end. For contenting him with its caution, it gathered up the articles of its apparent dress, and presently all clothed it stole across the room, and by the door it turned, and with one gesture promised him itself again. In the dawn, at once by that gesture clothed and unclothed, it had shone before him, a pale light burning against the morning, the last flickering fire of the corpse-candles of the insubstantial; then it had passed, and left him to sleep. So when later they brought him his early tea, he was alone; but that day while he drank, he found the thought of the Adela of past days a little disagreeable-no longer troublesome or joyous but merely disagreeable. He would have to meet her, no doubt, one day; meanwhile he was entirely at peace, and he did not want to think of anything at all. He lay and drank, and was still.

As the days went by, he found that his child kept her promise. He could not conceive a way of coming that, sooner or later, she did not take, nor a manner of love that, sooner or later, she did not fulfil. Since it was more and more Adela, he was instinctively careful never to conceive a meeting which conflicted with the possibilities of the actual Adela; he asked of his nightly bedfellow nothing but secret advents or accidental encounters. But these gradually he multiplied; and always it answered. By chance, in the street, at first by late night, but afterwards earlier. For once this Adela said to him, in a casual phrase, to which only his own veiled knowledge gave a double meaning: “They won’t remember if they see me.” So he dared to walk with it sometimes for variation, but then they went always through the lower darker streets of the Hill, and at first they met no one whom he knew, and presently no one at all. But Adela Hunt wondered sometimes why she never seemed to run against Lawrence Wentworth by chance in the streets of Battle Hill.

Yet, in the order of the single universe known to myriads of minds, the time and place that belongs to each of those myriads has relation to others; and though the measurement of their experiences may differ, there is something common to them all in the end. Sometimes where time varies place is stable; or where places intermingle time is secure, and sometimes the equilibrium of both, which is maintained in so many living minds, swings into the place of the dead. Sometimes the dead know it, and sometimes the living; a single clock ticks or a single door opens in two worlds at once. The chamber of that dark fundamental incest had had the dead man for its earliest inhabitant, though his ways and Wentworth’s had been far apart-as far as incest from murder, or as selfworship from self-loathing, and either in essence false to all that is. But the self-worship of the one was the potential source of cruelty, as the self-loathing of the other was the actual effect of cruelty; between them lay all the irresolute vacillations of mankind, nourishing the one and producing the other. All who had lived, or did or could live, upon Battle Hill, leaned to one or the other, save only those whom holy love had freed by its revelation of something ever alien from and conjoined with the self.

In Wentworth’s old dream he had climbed down a rope securely and not unpleasantly, much as the world of our culture sways on the rope from the end of which the outcasts of civilization swing in a strangled life. Since the phantom of Adela had come to him the dream had disappeared. He slept deeply. If he woke she would be there by his side, petting or crooning to him; until one night he thought how pleasant it would be to wake and look on her asleep, and the next time he woke, there indeed she was, disposed to his wish. But he found it troubled him; as he looked at her in the silence he began to wonder, and to think of the other Adela sleeping in her own house. For a little he tried to find pleasure in considering how in effect he possessed her without her knowledge or will, but the effort was too much for his already enfeebled mind. He found himself disliking the life of the actual Adela; he could be so happy with the substance by him if only the other were dead. But to know that she did not know . . . and that perhaps one day Hugh . . . . He had forgotten Hugh in these last weeks, and in a hasty retreat to oblivion he woke the creature from its apparent slumber, and in its yearnings and embraces lost actuality again and lost himself. He whispered to her then that she must never sleep when he woke, so drawing another veil between himself and the truth.

It was some nights afterwards that the dream returned. For the first time it troubled him. He was climbing in the darkness down that shining rope of silver, even more peacefully than ever he had climbed before. He was descending, he now vaguely imagined, towards a companion who waited for him f’ar below, where the rope was fastened to the side of a cave@ in an unseen wall. The companion had waited, was waiting, would wait; it would never grow tired either of him or of waiting for him; that was why it was there, with its soft bare arms, and its sweet eyes closed in the dream of his approach. As he descended, in that warm expectation, a terrible sound broke on him. The abyss groaned. From above and below, from all sides, the rending grief of a hardly tolerable suffering caught him; he clung horribly to his rope, and the rope shook in the sound. The void became vocal with agony; the hollow above and the hollow below came together in that groan of the very air, and it echoed from unseen walls, and reechoed, and slowly died. Only once it came. It was succeeded by the ancient silence. He listened breathlessly, but it did not recur. It had turned the dream into a nightmare for him; he shook on his rope, and struggled in his body, and so he awoke, and there by his side, waking also, was the companion he sought. He clutched it and hid himself against it; he hid his ears between its breasts and its hands, lest the night should groan again. in his haste to hide himself, as if like others he bad@ the mountains fall on him and the hills cover him, and in the darkness of the room, he did not see the inhuman countenance. It had grown haggard and old; its fullness fell away; its eyes were blurred. The meaning which he had given it had departed; an imbecile face stared blankly over him. The movements its body made were sufficient to cover his distress, but they had been jerky and inorganic, as if an automaton repeated its mechanical motions, and as if the mechanism were running down. For less than the time it took him to find refuge with her the creature that lay there was millions of years older than the dying woman by whom Pauline watched, while the pain of a god passed outwards from the mountain depths, as from those where Prometheus hung, or downwards from the cross that stood upon a hill that also was of skulls. It united itself with all spiritual anguish that received and took part with it; it fell away from the closed ears in the beds of Gomorrah. The dead man looked at Margaret, Pauline thought of Stanhope and was at peace as it ceased. The renewed phantasm of peace received again the desire that sprang in the heart of its father and lover, and throve and grew beautiful on it. Her terrible and infinite senility receded; Lawrence Wentworth’s strong deceit forbade her to pass on to death and recalled her to apparent life. The suicide in the body had lost the vision of his destruction; the suicide in the soul had not yet reached his own. The thing became lovely with Adela’s youth, and its lover slept.

In the morning, however, alone as usual, Wentworth was less at peace than had been his wont since the thing had come to him. In those earlier hours the night and his nightly companion were always indistinct. He preferred that indistinctness; he preferred, in the bright July mornings, to think of his work — the books he was reading, the book he was writing. He remembered that he had still a letter to write against Aston Moffatt, and had already begun it. But though he thought about his next unwritten sentence he could not ever manage to write it down. He would often go to his study in his dressing gown to get his papers, refusing to remember why they were not, as in the old days they used to be, lying by his bedside, or remembering only that it was because of the pleasant fantasies of his brain. So long as he could, in those early hours, pretend that it was only a mental fantasy he felt happier; he did not, just for those hours, quite like to admit that it was physical, because its actuality would have seemed in some way more immoral than a mental indulgence. His mind was certainly losing power. Afterwards as the day grew on, and the strength of his masculinity returned and swelled in him, he came to repose on his knowledge of its actual presence. But that morning he was troubled; he felt obscurely that something was attacking his peace. He moved restlessly; he got up and walked about; he tried to find refuge in this or the other thought; he failed. He would not go out that day; he sat about the house. And as the day went on he became aware that he feared to go out lest he should meet Adela Hunt, the real Adela Hunt on some real errand. He could not bear that; he could not bear her. What right had she to make his beloved a false image of her? It was after a solitary lunch and a fretful hour of work that he allowed himself at last to long for the succubus by day, and by day, knocking at his door-and he guessed who knocked and hurried himself to open it-it came. It sat in his room, and talked to him, with his own borrowed intelligence. It spoke of Caesar and Napoleon, of generals and campaigns-traditions it could not know, history it could not recall, humanity it could not share. And still, though he was less unhappy, he was unhappy, for all that day, till the sun began to go down, he was haunted by a memory of another Adela. Even when his hand was on her bare arm, or hers caressing his, he was dimly troubled. He wanted to pull the curtains, to lock the doors, to bar out what was in his brain by barring his house, to be with what was irreconcilably not the world. He wanted either to shut himself wholly away from the world in a sepulchre of desire and satiety and renewed desire; or to destroy if not the world, at least one form that walked in the world.

His trouble was increased by the likelihood of the intrusion of the world of the other Adela. He had, weeks since, sent to Mrs. Parry drawings and descriptions for the Grand Ducal uniforms. She had rung him up once or twice about them, and she was beginning to insist on his going round to her house to approve the result. He did not want to go to her house. He would be expected to be at the play, the performance of which was approaching, and he did not want to be at the play. Adela would be acting, and he didn’t want to see her in her eighteenth-century costume, or any more at all. He would have to speak to her and he did not want to speak to her. He wanted to be alone with his fantasies. It was all the busy world, with Adela as its chief, that still hampered him. He could, of course, shut himself away, but if he were to enjoy the phantasm of Adela as he wanted to, his servants must see her and bring her tea and accept her as a visitor, and then what would they think if they heard of the actual Adela being seen somewhere else at the same time? Or if, by chance, the actual Adela should call? It knew, with that accuracy with which it always prevented his desires, that he was disturbed about something it-could not, until night came, cure. It spent on him a lingering gaze of love, and said “I must go.” It caught and kissed his hand in a hungry fire, and it looked up at him fervently and said: “Tonight? Dear Lawrence, to-night?” He said “To-night”, and desired to add the name. But he had never yet been able to do so-as if the name were indeed something actual, sacramental of reality. He said “To-night”, and pressed it and kissed it and took it to the door, which he shut quickly, as he always did, for he had an uneasy wonder whether it ever went anywhere, once it had parted from him, and he did not wish to see it fade before his eyes into the air which, this summer, was growing so intolerably bright.

The unusual brightness had been generally noticed. It was not a heat-wave; the weather was too gay and airy for that. It was an increase in luminous power; forms stood out more sharply, voices were heard more clearly. There seemed to be a heightening of capacity, within and without. The rehearsals of the play increased in effect, a kind of swiftness moved in the air; all things hastened. People said: “What a beautiful summer!” and went on saying it. One afternoon Pauline heard Stanhope, who had replied to that phrase a score of times, vary the reply by saying with some surprise: “O, the summer, do you think?” But his interlocutor had already been wafted away.

It was two days since the promise of substituted love, and it was their first meeting. She took advantage of her precursor’s remark to say, as she shook hands, and their glances exchanged affection: “What then, if it isn’t the summer?”

He shrugged delicately. “Only, does it seem like the summer?” he asked.

“Not very,” she said. “But what do you think?”

“The air within the air, perhaps,” he answered, half-serious. “The thing that increases everything that is, and decreases everything that isn’t.”

Pauline said, not upon any impulse of conventional chatter, “And which am I?”

“O is,” he said, “is, decidedly. Unfortunately, perhaps, in many ways, but final. You haven’t had any meetings yet?”

She began to answer and was cut short by new arrivals. It was the day of the dress rehearsal, and even the sophisticated practitioners of Battle Hill felt a new excitement.

Climax was at hand. The young and more innocent actors triumphed in a delight modified by fear of their incapacity; the more experienced feared the incapacity of others. Adela Hunt, for instance, was anxious that Periel and the Chorus should be her adequate background, and that her dramatic lover should adore her urgently. He, a nice boy and shy, was too conscious of the Chorus individually to rise quite to the height of them in a mass. His voice still faltered with the smallest vibration of awareness upon the invocation of the fire. Mrs. Parry had pointed out to him that he must be used to burning leaves, and he had agreed; still, at the height of the verse, he trembled a little with the stress. The Bear, on the other hand, was distracted between his own wish to be ursine and Mrs. Parry’s to be period. His two great moments, however, were in action rather than speech. One was a heavy pursuit of the Princess; at the other he and Periel intertwined in a dance among all the personages, drawing them into a complexity of union. He was not a pantomime bear; no assistant completed quadrupedicity; he walked bowed but upright, a bear’s head, high furred boots, furred coat and gauntlets, making up the design which signified or symbolized the growling mass of animal life. Nor, though he and the spirit of the spirits danced together, did they ever meet or speak; between them always moved the mortal figures and harmonized their incommunicable utterances.

It was the reputation of Peter Stanhope which had so largely increased the excitement of this year’s drama. Public attention was given to it; articles appeared in New York and paragraphs in Paris. Seats had to be reserved for a few-a very fewvery distinguished visitors; many others could be and had to be refused. The Press would be there. A palpitation of publicity went through the cast; the world seemed to flow towards Battle Hill. There was no denying that it was an event, almost a moment in the history of the imagination; recognized as such by, at least, a not inconsiderable minority of those who cared for such things, and a quite inconsiderable minority of those who did not, but who read everything in their papers. Even the cast were provided with tickets; and the rehearsal itself was guarded by a policeman. A popular member of the Chorus also stood by the gate and scrutinized all arrivals, as if the bear and the spirit purged creation by power and knowledge.

The pressure of this outer world had modulated and unified the producer, the performers, and every one else concerned with the play. Harmony became so necessary that it was actually achieved, fate and free-will coinciding. Stanhope became so desirable that he was compelled to promise to say a few words at the end. A deference towards him exhibited itself. Adela rebuked Pauline for speaking lightly of the great man.

“I didn’t know that you admired him so much yourself,” Pauline said.

Adela, with an unfailing grasp of the real values of the world, said: “Even if I didn’t, he is respected by some very fine judges. But I’ve come to see there is more in him than I’d thought. He’s got a number of curiously modern streaks under his romanticism.”

When Adela mentioned romanticism Pauline, and most other people, changed the conversation. Otherwise it was a prelude to a long and complete denunciation of all romantics as the enemies of true art. True art had been recently defined, by a distinguished critic, as “the factual oblique”, and of the factual oblique romanticism, it seemed, was incapable, being neither clear enough to be factual or clever enough to be oblique. The factual oblique, incidentally, had not yet revealed to Adela the oblique fact that she never mentioned romanticism when she was with Hugh; any conversation in which it seemed likely to appear was deflected before it arrived. Pauline, not having been able to reflect, merely altered.

“There’s Mr. Wentworth,” she said. “I do hope he approves of the Guard.”

“He ought to have looked at them before,” Adela said severely. “He’s been terribly slack. I suppose you haven’t seen him lately?”

“No, not with grandmother and the play and everything,” Pauline answered. “Have you?”

Adela shook her head. Wentworth was moving slowly across the lawn towards them. His eyes were on the ground; he walked heavily, and it was as if by accident that he at last drew level with them. Pauline said: “Good afternoon, Mr. Wentworth.”

He looked up at her and blinked. It was true the air was very clear and the sun very bright, yet Pauline was astonished by the momentary difficulty he seemed to find in focusing her. When he had got her right, he slowly smiled, and said: “Ah! Good afternoon, Miss Anstruther.”

Adela Hunt abruptly said: “Mr. Wentworth!” He jumped. Slightly but definitely he jerked, and only then looked round. He looked, and there was perplexity in his eyes. He stared at the surprised Adela; he seemed taken aback at seeing her, and almost to resent it. A disagreeable shock showed in his face, and was gone, as he answered: “Oh, yes; Misss Hunt”; a statement, not a greeting: a piece of information offered to the inquiring mind. Adela could not help noticing it, and was almost too astonished to smile. She couldn’t believe the look had been acted, yet he couldn’t really be surprised. She wondered if he were indeed secretly angry, if it were a poor mad insult of an outraged mind, and decided it couldn’t be.

She said briskly: “I hope you’ve approved of the uniforms.” He took a step back. He said, in real distress: “Oh, hush, hush, not so loud,” and in turn he blinked at her, as if, when he had taken in her words, they surprised him more. Little though she could know it, they did. He had supposed, in the night and the morning, that he had hated the Adela of the world; He had had her in his imagination as an enemy and a threat. He had overrated her. She was, in fact, nothing like what he had, and now he had met her he had hardly recognized her. There had been a girl, talking to — to — the name had again escaped him — to the other girl, whose shape had reminded him of his nightly mistress; she had turned her head, and it had been his mistress, and then again it was not. It could not be, for this one was remote and a little hostile; it was not, for this one was nothing like as delightful, as warm, as close-bewildering. She spoke, and it was strange, for he expected love; he did not want that voice except in love, and now it — at first — said strange things. With relief he realized it was not his voice — so he called it, admirably exact; this was not the voice of his mistress, and his mistress was most particularly he. This distressed him; it was loud, harsh, uncouth. It was like the rest of the tiresome world into which he had been compelled to enter — violent, smashing, bewildering by its harsh clamour, and far from the soft sweetness of his unheard melody. It was not without reason that Keats imagined the lover of unheard melody in reverie on stone images; the real Greek dancers would have pleased him less. But though Wentworth was shocked by the clumsy tread and the loud voice, they relieved him also. He had hated once; but then he had not wanted to hate-it disturbed him too much; and now he knew he did not. He need not resent the grossness of the world; enough if, by flight, he rejected it. He had his own living medicament for all trouble, and distaste and oblivion for everything else-most of all for his noisome parody of his peace.

Adela said, modulating her voice: “Have you got a headache? what a shame! it’s good of you to turn out, but we do want to be sure everything’s all right. I mean, if we must have uniforms. Personally . . . ”

Wentworth said, in a voice of exhaustion: “Oh, please!” In this stridency, as it seemed to him, there was a suggestion of another disastrous noise-the nightmare of a groan, tearing up the abyss, setting the rope swinging. The dull, heavy, plain thing opposite him became identified to his pained sense with that dreadful break-up of his dream, and now he could not hide. He could not say to the hills of those comforting breasts: “Cover me”. The sound sang to his excruciated body, as the sight oppressed it. The two imprisoned and split him: they held him and searched his entrails. They wanted something of him. He refused to want anything but what he wanted.

While Adela stared, half offended by his curious moan, he withdrew himself into his recesses, and refused to be wanted. Like the dead man on his flight down the hill, he declined communion. But he, to whom more room and beauty in life had been given, chances of clarity and devotion, was not now made frightening to himself. He had not known fear, nor did he find fear, nor was fear the instrument of salvation. He had what he had. There were presented to him the uniforms of the Grand Ducal Guard.

A voice as loud but less devastating than Adela’s, for it recalled no unheard melodies, said behind him: “Mr. Wentworth! at last! we’re all ready for you. Pauline, the Guard are over by the beeches: take Mr. Wentworth across. I’ll be there in a minute.” Mrs. Parry, having said this, did not trouble to watch them do it. She went on.

Pauline smiled at Wentworth’s dazed and Adela’s irritated face. She said: “I suppose we’d better. Would you, Mr. Wentworth?”

He turned to her with relief. The sound of her voice was quieter than the rest. He had never before thought so, but now certainly it was. He said, “Yes, yes; let’s get away.”

Pauline saw Adela as they turned from her, a Gorgon of incredulity. Her heart laughed, and they went. As they passed over the grass, she said: “I do hope you haven’t a headache? They’re so trying.”

He answered, a little relieved to be away from the dull shouting oppression of Adela: “People are so noisy. Of course . . . anything I can do . . . but I can’t stop long.”

“I shouldn’t think it would take more than a few minutes,” Pauline said. “You’ll only have to say yes or no — practically. And,” she added, looking round at the whole chaos of glory, and instinctively discerning Stanhope in the distance, “as it’s far too late for anything else, you might be so very kind as to enjoy us for what we are, and say yes.”

Hugh Prescott, grand-ducally splendid and dramatically middle-aged, ran after them. He said, as he caught them up: “Hallo, Mr. Wentworth! I hope my Guard’ll be correct.”

Wentworth had been soothed by Pauline’s voice. It had to his mind, after Adela’s, something of that quality he desired. It mingled with him; it attracted him; it carried him almost to that moment he knew so well, when, as the desire that expressed his need awoke and grew in him, there came a point of abandonment to his desire. He did not exactly will, but he refused to avoid. Why, indeed, he had once asked himself, swiftly, almost thoughtlessly, should he avoid? He asked himself no more; he sighed, and as it were, nestled back into himself, and then it would somehow be there-coming from behind, or speaking in his ear, or perhaps not even that, but a breath mingling with his, almost dividing from his to mingle with it, so that there were two where there had been one, and then the breath seemed to wander away into his palm where his hand lay half-closed, and became a hand in his own hand, and then a slow arm grew against his, and so, a tender coil against him or a swift energy of hunger, as his mood was, it was there, and when the form was felt, it could at last be seen, and he sank into its deep inviting eyes. As he listened to Pauline he suddenly knew all this, as he had never known it before; he almost saw it happen as a thing presented. Her voice created, but it separated. It brought him almost to his moment, and coiled away, with him in its toil. It directed him to the Guard; it said, with an intensity that Pauline had never uttered, but he in his crisis heard: “Take us as we are, and say yes; say yes or no . . . we are . . . we are . . . say yes . . . ” and another voice, “Is the Grand Duke’s Guard correct?” They became, as he paused before the displayed magnificence, a chorus swinging and singing: “We are . . . we are . . . we are. . . . Is the Guard correct? . . . Say, say, O say . . . is the Guard, is the Guard correct?”

It was not. In one flash he saw it. In spite of his diagrams and descriptions, they had got the shoulder-knots all wrong. The eighteenth century had never known that sort of thing. He looked at them, for the first moment almost with the pure satisfaction of the specialist. He almost, somewhere in him, joined in that insane jangle: “No, no, no; the Guard is wrong — O, wrong. Say . . . I say . . . He looked, and he swung, as if on his rope, as if at a point of decision — to go on or to climb up. He walked slowly along the line, round the back, negligent of remarks and questions, outwardly gazing, inwardly swinging. After that first glance, he saw nothing else clearly. “Say yes or no. The shoulder-knots could be altered easily enough, all twelve, in an hour or so’s work. Or pass them —“take us as we are . . . say yes.” They could be defended, then and there, with half a dozen reasons; they were no more of a jumble than Stanhope’s verse. But he was something of a purist; he did not like them. His housekeeper, for that matter, could alter them that evening under his direction, and save the costume-makers any further trouble. “Is the Guard, is the Grand Duke’s Guard, correct?”

A voice penetrated him. Hugh was saying: “One must have one’s subordinates exact, mustn’t one?” There was the slightest stress on “subordinates”-or was there? Wentworth looked askance at him; he was strolling superb by his side. Pauline said: “We could alter some things, of course.” His silence had made her anxious. He stood away, and surveyed the backs of the Guard. He could, if he chose, satisfy and complete everything. He could have the coats left at his house after the rehearsal; he could do what the honour of his scholarship commanded; he could have them returned. It meant only his being busy with them that one evening, and concerning himself with something different from his closed garden. He smelt the garden.

Mrs. Parry’s voice said: “Is the Guard correct?” He said: “Yes.” It was over; he could go.

He had decided. The jingle was in his ears no more. Everything was quite quiet. The very colours were still. Then from a distance movement began again. His future was secure, both proximate and ultimate. But his present was decided for him; he was not allowed to go. The devil, for that afternoon, promptly swindled him. He had cheated; he was at once cheated. Mrs. Parry expected him to stop for the rehearsal and oversee the movement of the Guard wherever, in its odd progress about the play, it marched on or marched off. She made it clear. He chattered a protest, to which she paid no attention. She took him to a chair, saw him in it, and went off. He had no energy to oppose her. No one had. Over all that field of actors and spectators-over Stanhope and Pauline, over Adela and Hugh, over poetry and possession and sacred possession the capacity of one really capable woman imposed itself. The moment was hers, and in view of her determination the moment became itself. As efficient in her kind as Margaret Anstruther in hers, Catherine Parry mastered creation, and told it what to do. She had taken on her job, and the determination to fulfil her job controlled the utterance of the poetry of Stanhope and delayed the operation of the drugs of Lilith. Wentworth struggled and was defeated, Adela writhed but obeyed, Peter Stanhope laughed and enjoyed and assented. It was not perhaps the least achievement of his art that it had given to his personal spirit the willingness to fulfil the moment as the moment, so that, reserving his own apprehension of all that his own particular business meant to him, he willingly subordinated it to the business of others at their proper time. He seconded Mrs. Parry as far as and in every way that he could. He ran errands, he took messages, he rehearsed odd speeches, he fastened hooks and held weapons. But he only seconded her. The efficiency was hers; and the Kingdom of God which fulfilled itself in the remote recesses of his spacious universe fulfilled itself also in her effective supremacy. She stood in the middle of the field and looked around her. The few spectators were seated; the actors were gathering. Stanhope stood by her side. The Prologue, with his trumpet, ran hastily across the stage to the trees which formed the background. Mrs. Parry said: “I think we’re ready?” Stanhope agreed. They retired to their chairs, and Mrs. Parry nodded vigorously to the Prologue. The rehearsal began.

Wentworth, sitting near to Stanhope, secluded himself from it as much as possible, reaching backward and forward with closed eyes into his own secrecies. At the extreme other end of activity, Pauline, waiting with the Chorus for the Woodcutter’s Son’s speech, upon which, as he fed the flames, the first omnipotent song was to break, also gave herself up to delight. If the heavens had opened, it was not for her to deny them, or even too closely to question or examine them. She carried, in her degree, Peter Stanhope and his fortunes-not for audience or other publicity but for the achievement of the verse and the play itself. It was all very well for Stanhope to say it was an entertainment and not a play, and to be charmingly and happily altruistic about her, and since he preferred her to fall in with Mrs. Parry’s instructions she did it, for everyone’s sake including her own. But he was used, anyhow in his imagination, to greater things; this was the greatest she had known or perhaps was ever likely to know. If the apparition she had so long dreaded came across the field she would look at it with joy. If it would sit down till the rehearsal was over. . . . She smiled to herself at the fantasy and laughed to think that she could smile. The Woodcutter’s Son from beside her went forward, carrying his burden of twigs. His voice rose in the sublime speculations of fire and glory which the poet’s reckless generosity had given him. He spoke and paused, and Pauline and all the Chorus, moving so that their own verdure showed among the trees, broke into an answering song.

She was not aware, as the rehearsal proceeded, of any other sensation than delight. But so clear and simple was that delight, and so exquisitely shared by all the performers in their separate ways, that as between the acts they talked and laughed together, and every one in the field, with the exception of Lawrence Wentworth, joined in that universal joy-so single and fundamental did it become that once, while again she waited, it seemed to her as if the very words “dress rehearsal” took on another meaning. She saw the ceremonial dress of the actors, but it did not seem to her stranger than Mrs. Parry’s frock or Stanhope’s light suit. All things at all times and everywhere, rehearsed; some great art was in practice and the only business anyone had was to see that his part was perfect. And this particular rehearsal mirrored the rest-only that this was already perfected from within, and that other was not yet. The lumbering Bear danced; the Grand Duke uttered his gnomic wisdom; the Princess and the Woodcutter’s Son entered into the lucid beauty of first love; the farmers counted their pence; and the bandits fell apart within.

It was in the pause before the last act that the dark thought came to her. She had walked a little away from the others to rest her soul, and, turning, looked back. Around the place where lately the fire had burned, the Prologue and some of the Guard were talking. She saw him lift his trumpet; she saw them move, and the uniforms shone in the amazing brightness of the sun, and suddenly there came to her mind another picture; the woodcut in the old edition of the Book of Martyrs. There too was a trumpet, and guards, and a fire, and a man in it. Here, the tale said, and she had not remembered it till now, here where this stage, perhaps where this fire lay, they had done him to death by fire.

She had had the last act in mind as she turned, the act in which physical sensation, which is the play of love, and pardon, which is the speed of love, and action, which is the fact of love, and almighty love itself, all danced together: and now a shadow lay across it, the shadow of death and cruelty, the living death. The sun was still bright, colours vivid, laughter gay, and the shadow was the centre of them all. The shadow was a hollow, filled with another, quite different, fact. She felt the pang of the last hopelessness. If the living who walked in the gutters of mind or spirit, if the present misery of the world, were healed, or could be forgotten, still there sprang out of the hollow the knowledge of the dead whose unrecompensed lives had gone before that joy. The past accused her, made terrible by the certain history of her hous@. His blood was in her and made demands on hers. He had gone willingly to death, chosen it, insisted on it; his judges had been willing enough to spare him if he would commit himself to a phrase or two. But still in the end they had inflicted death, and agony in death; and the world that had inflicted and enjoyed and nourished itself on agony was too like the world in which she moved, too like Hugh and Adela and Catherine Parry and the rest. She had been lost in a high marvel, but if that joy were seriously to live it must somehow be reconciled with the agony that had been; unless hollow and shell were one, there was only hollow and shell.

She walked back, and as she did so Stanhope saw her and came across.

“Well,” he said, “it all seems going very well.”

She said, with a coldness in her voice that rose from the creeping hollow of the darkness. “You think so? . . . did you know an ancestor of mine was burnt alive just here?”

He turned to walk by her. “I did,” he said. “I’d read it, of course-after all, it’s my house-and your grandmother spoke of it.”

She said: “Well?” and then repentantly, “I’m sorry but . . . we’re all so happy. The play, the fire-our fire, it’s all so wonderful. And yet we can do that. How can we be happy, unless we forget? and how can we forget? how can we dare forget?”

He said: “Forget nothing. Unless everything’s justifiable, nothing is. But don’t you forget, perhaps, something else?”

She looked at him with question. He went on: “Mightn’t his burden be carried too?”

She stopped; she said staring: “But he’s dead!”

“And so?” Stanhope asked mildly, and waited.

She said: “You mean . . . you can’t mean . . .?” As her voice hung baffled, there arose gigantic before her the edge of a world of such incredible dimensions that she was breathless at the faint hint. Her mouth opened; her eyes stared. Her head was spinning. She said: “But. . . . ”

Stanhope took her arm to propel her gently forward; then, letting it go, he said: “A good deal of our conversation consists of saying but to each other. However, who shall fail to follow when . . . and so forth. ‘But —’ Periel?”

“But he’s dead,” she repeated. It was not what she meant to say.

“So you remarked,” Stanhope said gently. “And I asked you what that had to do with it. Or words to that effect. You might as well say he had red hair, as for all I know he may have had. Yes, yes, Mrs. Parry.”

He raised his voice and waved back. “We shall be delaying the rehearsal,” he said. “Come along-all things in their order.”

She asked, inadvertently, as she quickened her steps to keep pace with him: “Do you tell me to try and carry his fear?”

“Well,” he answered, “you can’t make contact; so far, it’s true, death or red hair or what not interferes. But you might, in the Omnipotence, offer him your — anything you’ve got. Only I should intend to have it first.”

“Intend to have it?” she asked breathlessly.

“Intend to have joy to offer,” he said. “Be happy-take all the happiness, if it’s there, that you may not offer the Lord what costs nothing. You must have a small private income to try and help support even a Marian martyr. Heavens, they are waiting. To your tent, O Periel.” As she ran he exclaimed after her. “Perhaps that’s the difference between Israel and Judah! they went to their own tents and left David to his. Hence the Dispersion . . . and the Disappearance.”

“What disappearance, Mr. Stanhope?” Mrs. Parry asked.

He had come level with her while he was still speaking, and he made a small gesture. “Nothing, Mrs. Parry. Of the saviour of his own life. How well this act opens, doesn’t it?”

As Pauline, escaping Mrs. Parry’s eye, ran across the stage, and threaded her way between the persons to her position, her mind was more breathless than she. She felt again, as in a low but immense arc rising above the horizon of her world, or perhaps of the earth itself, the hint of new organization of all things: a shape, of incredible difficulty in the finding, of incredible simplicity found, an infinitely alien arrangement of infinitely familiar things. The bottom had dropped out of her universe, yet her astonished spirit floated and did not fall. She was a little sick with running, running into this other world. She halted, turned, addressed herself. She turned to the play where martyrdom had been — to the martyrdom. “I have seen the salvation of my God.” The salvation throbbed in the air above her; it thrilled in the mortal light. “‘Unto him that hath shall be given’ . . . ‘what of him that hath not?’” A voice, neither of the martyr nor his executioner, answered, singing, With a terrible clarity of assured fact — fact, the only thing that can be loved: “from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he seemeth to have”. A trumpet was crying, crying for the execution of the justice of the Queen’s Majesty on a convicted and impenitent heretic. His blood was in her veins; dazed with her own will, she struggled to pay the dues of her inheritance. The sudden crowd of adorned figures thronged before her. He was not there; he was dead centuries since. If centuries meant anything; perhaps they didn’t-perhaps everything was all at once, and interchanged devotion; perhaps even now he burned, and she and her friends danced, and her grandmother died and lived, and Peter Stanhope wrote his verse, and all the past of the Hill was one with its present. It lived; it intermingled; not among these living alone did the doctrine of substituted love bear rule. Her intention rose, and was clear, and withdrew, as the stage opened for her advance. About her the familiar and transfigured personages moved; this was the condition and this the air of supernatural life. Ecce, omnia nova facio. The incantation and adoration of the true substance of experience sounded. She fulfilled her part in a grave joy, aspiring to become part of that substance. All drew to its close; the dress rehearsal ended. Remained only the performance of the play.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/descent-into-hell/chapter8.html

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