Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Nine

The Tryst of the Worlds

As if the world of that other life to which this in which Margaret Anstruther lay was but spectral, and it to this, renewed itself with all its force in the groan he heard, as if that groan had been but its own energy of freeing itself, the dead man found when it ceased that he was standing alone among the houses. He remembered the vanished apparitions clearly enough, two images of beauty. He had seen an old woman and a young, though the younger form had been faint with distance. The colour which she hinted was obscured; in the older there was no colour but softness of light. Now he was in the street. His back was to the house. He was looking along the road, and he saw, beyond it at the point where the light of the sun, whatever sun, lay halted, the house and the ladder he knew. He saw the light beyond it, softer than before, as it were of one kind with that of the woman with whom he had spoken. The house itself was dark; the ladder was white with a bony pallor against it, but it held no sun. There it stood, waiting for him to go back.

There had been an opening up within him. He had run in his life after other men, and in his second life away from other selves. His unapt mind had been little use to him. It had been trying to please others or himself, naturally and for long properly. He was relieved of this necessity. There was only one way to go, and the only question if he should go. He could move, or not. He knew this, yet, like Pauline when she kept her promise to Stanhope, he knew that he had already chosen, had come into obedience, and was no longer free. He began to walk. He had not realized that the choice was there until the choice had been made. Wentworth, turning from the Grand Ducal Guard, did not realize it even then; as Macbeth did not know he had accepted his deed when he accepted the means, and conceded his sin to his conviction of success.

In effect, the dead man’s choice, like all choices of the kind, had been less than it seemed. He could go, or he could wait till he was driven. In the hastening or delaying of the end lies all distinction in the knowledge of the end when at last it comes. At rare moments speed is determined; all else is something else. He went, and with more energy than he had ever known. The lost power of his missed youth awoke in him, and of his defrauded manhood. It was needed. He had not taken a dozen steps before the memory of his latest experience became as faint as the old woman’s voice had been. He did not again feel his old fear, but he was intensely aware of ignorance. There were now no shapes. He was alone, and the pallid ladder of the dark house stood before him. The light beyond was soft, but promised nothing. As he went soundlessly he had no thought but that it was better to do at once what must be done, and that he had seen, if only in a fading apparition, the tender eyes of love.

He passed the finished houses; he came among those which, by the past or future, had been unbuilt. As he reached them he heard a faint sound. He had come again into the peculiar territory of the dead. He heard behind him a small rustle, as if of dead leaves or snakes creeping out from dry sticks. He did not think of snakes or leaves, nor of the dead leaves of a great forest, the still-existent nothingness of life. Those who had known the green trees were tangled and torn in the dry. The tragedies of Peter Stanhope carried the image of that pain-piercing nothing. The dead man, like Pauline, had lived with thorns and hard wood, and at last they had destroyed him as pitilessly as the Marian martyr. He did not therefore conceive them now as anything but a mere sound. It went with him along the road. and when he had come fully out at the end into the space where the ladder of bone led again to a darkness of the grave, it had become louder. He heard it on all sides. He stopped and turned.

The shapes were standing in a great crowd watching him. Mostly they had his form and face, and they stood, in the infinite division of past moments, but higgledy-piggledy, sombrely staring. He saw in front, parodying earthly crowds, the children — different ages, different sizes, all looking with his small pointed hungry face. In the massed multitude behind there were, at points, different faces, faces of any few creatures who for one reason or another had mattered to his mind. He saw his wife in several places; he saw the face of a youth who had been the nearest he had known to a friend; he saw those he had disliked. But, at most, these others were few.

The crowd did not move, except that sometimes other single forms slipped out of the ruined houses, swelling it as crowds are swelled in London streets. It was useless, had he desired it, to attempt to return. He turned away from them again, but this time not merely from them but towards something, towards the ladder. He laid a hand on it. The long hard dry rustle came again, as the whole crowd fell forward, bones shifting and slipping as some moving vitality slid through them. They closed towards him, their thronged circles twisting round the house and him as if they were the snake. His mortal mind would have given way, could it have apprehended such a strait between shadowy bone and shining bone; his immortal, nourished by belief in the mother of his soul, remained clear. His seeming body remained capable. He exercised his choice, and began to go up the ladder. At once, with a horrid outbreak of shifting leaves and snapping sticks and rustling bodies, they were about its foot, looking up. The living death crowded round the ladder of bone, which it could not ascend. White faces of unvitalized, unsubstantial, yet real, existence, looked up at him mounting. Nothingness stared and panted, with false breath, terrible to those who live of choice in its phantasmal world. But for him, who rose above them to that stage set in the sky, the expanded point and culminating area of his last critical act, the place of skull and consciousness, of life and death and life, for him there entered through the grasp he had on the ladder shafts an energy. He looked neither down nor up; he went on. A wind had risen about him, as if here the movement of the leaves, if leaves, shook the air, and not the air the leaves. It was as if a last invisible tentacle were sent up by the nothingness to draw him back into the smooth undulations below, that its sterility might bury him in a living sepulchre; the identities of the grave moving in a blind instinct to overtake and seize him. Now and then some of them even began to mount a few rungs, but they could get and keep no hold. They fell again to their own level.

He did not see this, for his eyes were above. In the same sense of nothing but action he climbed the last rungs, and stood on the stage from which he had been flung. But he had hardly stepped on to it before it changed. He had come back from his own manner of time to the point in the general world of time from which he had fled, and he found it altered. The point of his return was not determined by himself, but by his salvation, by a direction not yet formulated, by the economy of means of the Omnipotence, by the moment of the death of Margaret Anstruther. Therefore he came into the built house, and the room where Wentworth slept. The open stage closed round him as he came upon it. The walls rose; there was a ceiling above. He knew he stood in a room, though the details were vague. It was ghostly to him, like that other in which, a short time before, he had stood. There the old woman had been a vivid centre to him. Here he was not, at first, aware of a centre. In this other world he had not been astonished at the manner in which things happened, but now he was a little uncomfortable. He thought at first it was because he could have had no business in such a room during his earlier life. So perhaps it was, but if so, another cause had aroused the old uneasiness — the fainthint of a slither of dry leaves, such as he had heard behind him along the road@ but now within the room. It displeased and diseased him; he must remove himself. It was almost his first quiet decision ever; he was on the point to enter into actions of peace. The courtesy that rules the world of spirits took him, and as the creature that lay in the room had not entered except under Wentworth’s compulsion, so this other made haste to withdraw from its intrusion. Also he was aware that, having reentered this place and point of time, this station of an inhabited world, by the ladder of bone from the other side, he must go now farther on the way. He had the City in his mind; he had his wife in mind. He could not tell by what means or in what shape he would find her, or if he would find her. But she was his chief point of knowledge, and to that he directed himself. Of the necessity of getting a living he did not think. Living, whether he liked it or not, was provided; he knew that he did like. He went carefully across the dim room and through the door; down the stairs, and reached the front door. It opened of itself before him, so he thought, and he peered out into the road. A great blackness was there; it changed as he peered. As if it fled from him, it retreated. He heard the wind again, but now blowing up the street. A shaft of light smote along with it. Before wind and light and himself he saw the night turn, but it was not the mere night; it was alive, it was made of moving and twisting shapes hurrying away of their own will. Light did not drive them; they revealed the light as they went. They rose and rushed; as they disappeared he saw the long drive before him, and at its end, in the street proper, the figure of a girl.

In a different darkness, mortally illumined, Pauline, not far away, had that previous evening been sitting by her grandmother’s bed. It was, to her, the night after the rehearsal. She had come home to find Margaret awake, alert, inquiring, and after she had spoken of the details of the afternoon, she had not been able, nor wished, to keep from speaking of the other thing that filled and threatened her mind. Her grandmother’s attention still seemed to her acute, even if remote. Indeed, all mortal things were now remote to-Margaret unless they were vividly consistent with the slope over which she moved. She felt, at intervals, someone being lifted and fed, someone hearing and speaking intelligible words. Only sometimes did definiteness from that other casual state enter her; then she and it were sharply present. For the rest she only saw vague images of a great good, and they faded, and at rarer intervals in the other single consciousness of slow — but slow! — movement over a surface, an intense sweetness pierced her. She moaned then, for it was pain; she moaned happily, for it was only the last inevitable sloth of her body that made its pain, resisting, beyond her will, the translucent energy. She always assented. She assented now to what Pauline was saying, sitting by her bed, her fingers interlocked and pressed against her knee, her body leaning forward, her breath drawn with a kind of slow difficulty against the beating passion of her heart’s presagements. She was saying: “But how could one give backwards?”

Margaret could not, at that point of experience, explain metaphysics. She said: “If it’s like that, my dear?” Pauline said: “But if he took it? I thought-there-I might: but now, I daren’t.”

She saw Margaret’s smile flash at her across rocks. It went and the voice said: “You think it’s yours?”

Pauline answered, abruptly checking abruptness: “I don’t. . . . Do I?”

“You think one of the two’s yours — joy or misery,” Margaret said, “or both. Why, if you don’t, should you mind?”

Pauline for a minute struggled with this in silence: then, evading it, she returned to time. “But four hundred years,” she exclaimed.

“Child,” her grandmother said, “I can touch Adam with my hand; you aren’t as far off.”

“But how could he take it before I’d given it?” Pauline cried, and Margaret said: “Why do you talk of before? If you give, you give to It, and what does It care about before?”

Pauline got up and walked to the window. It was drawing towards night, yet so translucent was the pale green sky that night and day seemed alike unthinkable. She heard in the distance a single pair of hurrying feet; patter, patter. She said, in a muffled voice: “Even the edge frightens me.”

“Peter Stanhope,” Margaret said, “must have been frightened many times.”

“O-poetry!” Pauline exclaimed bitterly. “That’s different; you know it is, grandmother.”

“In seeing?” Margaret asked. “And as for being, you must find out for yourself. He can carry your parcels, but not you.”

“Couldn’t he?” Pauline said. “Not that I want him to.”

“Perhaps,” Margaret answered. “But I think only when you don’t need it, and your parcels when you do.”

Her voice grew faint as she spoke, and Pauline came quickly back to the bed.

“I’m tiring you,” she said hastily. “I’m sorry: look, I’ll go now. I didn’t mean to talk so much.”

Margaret glanced at her, and said in a whisper: “But I’d so much rather die talking.” All talk of the divine thing was pleasant to her, even if this beating of wings in the net, wings so dear and so close, was exhausting in the thin air. Pauline, looking down for a second after her good-night, thought that a change had taken place. The eyes had closed, though the girl was by no means sure that they were not as alert now as they had been when they were open and watching.

Yet a proportion between the old woman and external things had been withdrawn; another system of relations might have been established, but if so it was unapprehensible by others. But the change in customary relations was definitely apprehensible. She looked small, and yet small was hardly the word; she was different. The body had been affected by a change of direction in the spirit, and only when the spirit was removed would it regain for a little while its measurable place amongst measurable things. It could be served and aided; but the ceremonies of service were now made to something strange that existed among them. The strangeness communicated itself, by a kind of opposition, to the very bed in which that body was stretched; it became a mound of earth lifted up to bear the visiting victim. The woman who was their companion had half-changed into a visitor from another place, a visitor who knew nothing of the world to which she was still half-native. The unknown and the known mingled, as if those two great parents of humanity allowed their mingled powers to be evident to whoever watched. The mound, in the soft light of the room, presented itself to Pauline as if its low height was the crown and peak of a life; the longjourney had ended on this cavity in the rounded summit of a hill. She considered it gravely so before she turned and, leaving the nurse in charge, went to her own room.

She was not asleep when later in the night she was called. Her grandmother, the nurse said, needed her. Pauline pulled a dressing-gown on her and went across. Mrs. Anstruther was sitting in the bed, propped by pillows; her eyes looking away out of the room. As if she dared not turn her gaze away, she said, as Pauline came up: “Is that you, darling?”

“Me,” the girl answered. “Did you want me?”

“Will you do something for me?” Mrs. Anstruther said. “Something rather odd?”

“Why, of course,” the girl said. “Anything. What is it?”

“Would you be so very charming as to go out and see if anyone wants you?” Mrs. Anstruther said, quite distinctly. “Up by Mr. Wentworth’s.”

“She’s wandering,” the nurse whispered. Pauline, used to Mrs. Anstruther’s extremely unwandering habits, hesitated to agree. But it was certainly rather odd. She said, with a tenderness a little fractured by doubt, “Wants me, darling? Now?”

“Of course, now,” her grandmother answered. “That’s the point. I think perhaps he ought to get back to the City.” She looked round with a little sigh. “Will you?”

Pauline had been about to make the usual unfelicitous efforts of the healthy to persuade the sick that they are being rightly served. But she could not do it. No principle and no wisdom directed her, nor any conscious thought of love. She merely could not do it. She said: “By Mr. Wentworth’s? Very well, darling.” She could have helped, but did not, adding: “I don’t think it’s very likely.”

“No,” said Margaret, and Pauline was gripped by a complete sense of folly. “‘I don’t think it’s . . . No.’” She said: “I don’t know a thing. I’ll go.” And turned. The nurse said as she moved to the door: “Sweet of you to be so nice. Come back in ten minutes or so. She won’t realize the time.”

“I’m going,” Pauline said, distantly, and distinctly, “as far as Mr. Wentworth’s. I shall be as quick as I can.” She saw a protest at the nurse’s mouth, and added: “At once.”

She dressed quickly. Even so, in spite of her brave words to the nurse, her doubts were quicker. In spite of her intention, she reasoned against her promise. Three words dogmatized definition at her: “Her mind’s wandering; her mind’s wandering.” Why, obeying that wandering mind, should she herself wander on the Hill? Why, in a lonely street, under the pale shining sky, should she risk the last dreadful meeting? The high clock struck one; time drew to the night’s nadir. Why go? why go? Sit here, she said, almost aloud, and say “Peace”. Is it peace, jehu? cry peace where there is no peace; faciunt solitudinem et Pacem vocant. She would make a solitude round the dying woman and call it peace; the dying woman would die and never know, or dying know and call it well; the dying woman that would not die but see, or die and see; and dead, see and know — know the solitude that her granddaughter had called peace. Up and up, the wind was rising, and the shuffle of leaves under the moon, and nothing was there for her to find, but to find nothing now was to be saved from finding nothing in the place where whatever she now did was hid and kept and saved. The edge of the other world was running up along the sky, the world where everyone carried themselves but everyone carried someone else’s grief — Alice in Wonderland, sweet Alice, Alice sit by the fire, the fire burned: who sat by the fire that burned a man in another’s blood on the grass of a poet’s houses where things were given backward, and rules were against rights and rights against rules, and a ghost in the fire was a ghost in the street, and the thing that had been was the thing that was to be and it was coming, was coming; what was coming; what but herself? she was coming, she was coming, up the street and the wind; herself — a terrible good, terror and error, but the terror was error, and the error was in the terror, and now all were in him, for he had taken them into himself, and he was coming, down all the roads of Battle Hill, closing them in him, making them straight: make straight the highways before our God, and they were not for God took them, in the world that was running through this, its wheel turning within this world’s air, rolling out of the air. No peace but peace, no joy but joy, no love but love. Behold, I come quickly. Amen, even so, come . . . .

She caught up a hat and flung herself at the door, her blood burning within her, as the house burned around. The air was fiery to her sense; she breathed a mingled life, as if the flames of poetry and martyrdom rose together in the air within the air, and touched the outer atmosphere with their interior force. She ran down the stairs, but already her excitement, being more excitement than strength, flagged and was pain. Action was not yet so united with reaction as to become passion. The doubt she must have of what was to come took its old habitual form. Her past pretended to rule her, defacto sovereign, and her past was fear. It was midnight, the Hill was empty, she was alone. It could only be that her ghostly image lay, now, in wait for her to emerge into its desolate kingdom. She grit her teeth. The thing must be done. She had promised her grandmother; more important still, she had promised the nurse. She might have confided to the first what she would never concede to the second, It was then that she saw the telephone.

At first, as she paused a minute in the hall, to settle herself — to settle her determination that that woman who had talked of wandering minds should not find her foolish expectation fulfilled — at first she did not think of Stanhope; then inevitably, with her grief stirring in her, she did. To think of him was to think, at once, of speaking to him. The telephone. She thought: “One o’clock and he’s asleep; don’t be a fool.” She thought: “‘Any hour of the day or night’.” She thought: “I oughtn’t to disturb him,” and then with the clarity of that world of perpetual exchange: “I ought to disturb him.” It was her moral duty to wake him up, if he was asleep and she could. She smiled, standing in the hall where the new light of the summer sky dimly shone. Reversal had reached its extreme; she who had made a duty of her arrogance had found a duty in her need. Her need retreated beneath the shock. At precisely the moment when she could have done without him she went to ask for him; the glad and flagrant mockery of the Omnipotence lay peaceful in her heart as she dialled his number, her finger slowing a little on the last figure, as if the very notion were a delight too sweet to lose by haste. The receiver at her ear, as if she leant to it, she waited. Presently she heard his voice.

She said, again grave: “Are you awake enough to hear me?”

“Complete with attention,” he answered. “Whatever it is, how very, very right of you! That’s abstract, not personal, Concede the occasion.”

“The occasion,” she said, “is that I’m going out up the Hill because my grandmother’s asked me to, and I was a little afraid just now . . . I’m not.”

“O blessed, blessed,” Stanhope murmured, but whether he thought of her or the Omnipotence she did not know. He added, to her: “Go in peace. Would you like me to come?”

“No, of course not,” she answered, and lingering still a minute said: “I thought I wanted to ring you up, but when I did I didn’t. Forgive me.”

“If it gives you any pleasure,” he said, “but you might have needed forgiveness in fact if you hadn’t. God’s not mine. Pardon, Periel, like love, is only ours for fun: essentially we don’t and can’t. But you want to go. . . . You’ll remember?”

“For ever,” she said, “and ever and ever. Thank you.” She put the receiver firmly down, opened the door, and went out into the street. The pure night received her. Darkness was thick round the houses, but the streets lay clear. She was aware, immediately, of some unusualness, and presently she knew what it was. She was used to shadows lying across the pavements, but now it was not so. On either side of the street they gathered and blocked and hid the buildings, climbing up them, creepers of night, almost in visible movement. Between those masses the roads lay like the gullies of a mountain down which an army might come — broad and empty, prepared for an army, passes already closed by scouts and outposts, and watched by the dazzling flashes which now and then and here and there lit the sky, as if silver machines of air above the world moved in escort of expected power. Apart from those momentary dazzling flashes light was diffused through the sky. She could see no moon, only once or twice in her walk, at some corner, between the cliffs of darkness, far away on the horizon, she half-thought she saw a star-Hesper or Phosphor, the planet that is both the end and the beginning, Venus, omega and alpha, transliteration of speech. Once, far behind her, she thought she heard hurrying footsteps, but as she went on she lost them. She went quickly; for she had left behind her an approaching point to which she desired to return, the point of hastening death. She went peacefully, but while, days before, it had been Stanhope’s intervention that had changed her mood, now she had come, by the last submissive laughter of her telephone call, into the ways of the world he had no more than opened. She went with a double watchfulness, for herself and for that other being whom her grandmother had sent her to meet, but her watchfulness did not check her speed, nor either disturb the peace. She turned, soon enough, into the street where Lawrence Wentworth’s house stood, not far from the top of the Hill in one direction, from the Manor House in another, and, beyond all buildings, from the silent crematorium in a third. The street, as she came into it, looked longer than she had remembered. It had something of the effect by which small suburban byways, far inland, seem to dip towards the sea, though here it was no sea but a mere distance of road which received it. She slackened her pace, and, flicking one hand with her gloves, walked towards the house.

She reached it at last, and paused. There was at first no sign of any living creature. She looked up at it; the shadows were thick on it, seeming to expand and contract. The small occasional wind of the night, intermittently rising, caught them and flung them against it; they were beaten and bruised, if shadows could take the bruise, against its walls; they hid windows and doors; there was only a rough shape of the house discernible below them. She thought, in a faint fancy, too indistinct to be a distress, of herself flung in that steady recurrence against a bleak wall, and somehow it seemed sad that she should not be bruised. A gratitude for material things came over her; she twisted her gloves in her fingers and even struck her knuckles gently together, that the sharp feel of them might assure her of firm flesh and plotted bone. As if that slight tap had been at a door, to announce a visitor, she saw a man standing outside the shadow, close by the house.

She could not, in the moon, see very clearly what he was. She thought, by something in his form, that she had seen him before; then, that she had not. She thought of her grandmother’s errand, and that perhaps here was its end. She waited, in the road, while he came down the drive, and then she saw him clearly. He was small and rather bent; obviously a working man and at that an unsuccessful working man, for his clothes were miserably old, and his boots gaped. Yet he had presence; he advanced on her with a quiet freedom, and when he came near she saw that he was smiling. He put up his hand to his tattered cap; the motion had in it the nature of an act-it had conclusion, it began and ended. He said, almost with a conscious deference such as she could have imagined herself feeling for Stanhope had she known nothing of him but his name: “Good evening, miss. Could you tell me the way to London?”

There was the faintest sound of the city’s metal in his voice: dimly she knew the screech of London gate. She said: “Why, yes, but-you don’t mean to walk?”

He answered: “Yes, miss, if you’ll be so kind as to tell me the right road.”

“But it’s thirty miles,” she cried, “and . . . hadn’t you better. . . . ” She stopped, embarrassed by the difficulties of earth. He did not look inferior enough to be offered money; money being the one thing that could not be offered to people of one’s own class, or to anybody one respected. All the things that could be bought by money, but not money. Yet unless she offered this man money he did not, from his clothes, look as if he would get to London unless he walked.

He said: “I’d as soon walk, miss. It isn’t more than a step.”

“It seems to be considerably more,” she said, and thought of her grandmother’s errand, “Must you go now or could you wait till the morning? I could offer you a bed to-night.” It seemed to her that this must be the reason why she was here.

He said: “I’d as soon not, though thank you for offering. I’d rather start now, if you’ll tell me the way.”

She hesitated before this self-possession; the idea that he needed money still held her, and now she could not see any way to avoid offering it. She looked in his serene quiet eyes, and said, with a gesture of her hand, “If it’s a question of the fare?”

He shook his head, still smiling. “It’s only a matter of starting right,” he answered, and Pauline felt absurdly disappointed, as if some one had refused a cup of coffee or of cold water that she had wanted to bring. She was also a little surprised to find how easy it was to offer money when you tried — or indeed to take it; celestially easy. She answered his smile: “Well, if you won’t. . . . ” she said. “Look then, this is the best way.”

They walked a few steps together, the girl and the dead man, till, at a corner a little beyond Wentworth’s house, she stopped.

“Down there,” she said, pointing, “is the London road, you can just see where it crosses this. Are you sure you won’t stay to-night and go in the morning-fare and all?” So she might have asked any of her friends, whether it had been a fare or a book or love or something of no more and no less importance.

“Quite, miss,” he said, lifting his hand to his cap again in an archangelic salute to the Mother of God. “It doesn’t matter perhaps, but I think I ought to get on. They may be waiting for me.”

“I see,” she said, and added with a conscious laughter, “One never knows, does one?”

“O I wouldn’t say never, miss,” he answered. “Thank you again. Good night, miss.”

“Good night,” she said, and with a last touch of the cap he was gone down the road, walking very quickly, lightly, and steadily. He went softly; she was not sure that she could hear his tread, though she knew she had not been listening for it. She watched him for a minute; then she turned her head and looked up the cross-road on the other side of the street. That way ran up towards the Manor House; she thought of her telephone call and wondered if Stanhope were asleep or awake. She looked back at the departing figure, and said after it aloud, in an act of remembered goodwill: “Go in peace!”

The words were hardly formed when it seemed to her that he stopped. The figure surely stood still; it was swaying; it was coming back-not coming back, only standing still, gesticulating. Its arms went up toward heaven in entreaty; then they fell and it bent and clutched its head with its hands. An agony had fallen on it. She saw and began to run. As she did so, she thought that her ears caught for an instant a faint sound from behind her, as of a trumpet, the echo of the trumpet of that day’s rehearsal done or of the next day’s performance not yet begun, or of a siren that called for the raising or lowering of a bridge.

So faintly shrill was the sound, coming to her between the cliffs of a pass from a camp on the other side the height, that her senses answered as sharply. The sound was transmitted into her and transmuted into sight or the fear of sight. “The Magus . . . my dead child . . . his own image.” She was running fast; the stranger had gone an infinite distance in that time; she was running as she had run from her own room, and now she knew she had been right when she stopped, and it was a trap. Everything — she was running, for she could not stop — had been a part of the trap; even the shelter she had sometimes found had been meant only to catch her more surely in the end. Ah, the Magus Zoroaster had set it for her, all that time since, and her grandmother was part of its infinitely complicated steel mechanism, which now shut her in, and was going off-had gone off and was still going off, for ever and ever going off, in the faint shrill sound that came from behind her where Stanhope sat working it, for Zoroaster or Shelley were busy in front, and in front was the spring of the death and the delirium, and she had been tricked to run in that ingenious plot of their invention, and now she could no more stop than she could cease to hear the shrill whirr of the wheel that would start the spring, and when it cracked at last there would be her twin shape in the road. It was for this that the inhuman torturer who was Stanhope had pretended to save her, and the old creature who was her grandmother and talked of God had driven her out into the wild night, and the man who would not take her offer had fetched her to the point and the instant. Earth and sky were the climax of her damnation; their rods pressed her in. She ran; the trumpet sounded; the shape before her lifted his head again and dropped his hands and stood still.

She was coming near to him, and the only fact of peace to which her outraged mind could cling was that so far it was still he and not the other. Every second that he so remained was a relief. His back might open any moment and her own form leap hastily down from its ambush now among his veins and canals or from his interior back-throbbing heart. It did not; it became more definitely a man’s back, as she neared it, but she saw it shaking and jerking. It was a great back, clothed in some kind of cloth doublet, with breeches below, and a heavy head of thick hair above; and the arms suddenly went up again, and a voice sounded. It said, in a shout of torment: “Lord God! Lord God!”

She stopped running a dozen yards off and stood still. It was not her decision; she was brought to a stand. The cry freed her from fear and delirium, as if it took over its own from her. She stood still, suddenly alert. The trap, if there had been a trap, had opened, and she had come out beyond it. But there was another trap, and this man was in it. He cried again: “Lord God!”

The trumpet had ceased blowing. She said in a voice breathless only from haste: “Can I help you?”

The man in front became rigid: he said: “Lord God, I cannot bear the fear of the fire.”

She said: “What fire?” and still with his back to her he answered: “The fire they will burn me in today unless I say what they choose. Lord God, take away the fear if it be thy will. Lord God, be merciful to a sinner. Lord God, make me believe.”

She was here. She had been taught what to do. She had her offer to make now and it would not be refused. She herself was offered, in a most certain fact, through four centuries, her place at the table of exchange, The moment of goodwill in which she had directed to the City the man who had but lately died had opened to her the City itself, the place of the present and all the past. He was afraid, this martyr of her house, and she knew what to do. There was no doubt about it at all. She knew that the horror of the fire had overcome him. He was in the trap in which she had been but now; the universe had caught him. His teacher, his texts, his gospel had been its bars, and his judges and executioners were springing it; and the Lord God himself was, in that desperate hour, nothing but the spring that would press him into the torment. Once the Lord had been something else; perhaps still. . . . He was praying passionately: “Make me believe; make me believe.” The choice was first in her; Omnipotence waited her decision.

She knew what she must do. But she felt, as she stood, that she could no more do it than he. She could never bear that fear. The knowledge of being burnt alive, of the flames, of the faces, of the prolongation of pain. She knew what she must do. She opened her mouth and could not speak. In front of her, alone in his foul Marian prison, unaware of the secret means the Lord he worshipped was working swiftly for his peace, believing and unbelieving, her ancestor stood centuries off in his spiritual desolation and preluding agony of sweat. He could not see beyond the years the child of his house who strove with herself behind and before him. The morning was coming; his heart was drained. Another spasm shook him; even now he might recant. Pauline could not see the prison, but she saw him. She tried to choose and to speak.

Behind her, her own voice said: “Give it to me, John Struther.” He heard it, in his cell and chains, as the first dawn of the day of his martyrdom broke beyond the prison. It spoke and sprang in his drained heart; and drove the riotous blood again through his veins: “Give it to me, give it to me, John Struther.” He stretched out his arms again: he called: “Lord, Lord!” It was a devotion and an adoration; it accepted and thanked. Pauline heard it, trembling, for she knew what stood behind her and spoke. It said again: “Give”. He fell on his knees, and in a great roar of triumph he called out: “I have seen the salvation of my God.”

Pauline sighed deeply with her joy. This then, after so long, was their meeting and their reconciliation: their perfect reconciliation, for this other had done what she had desired, and yet not the other, but she, for it was she who had all her life carried a fear which was not her fear but another’s, until in the end it had become for her in turn not hers but another’s. Her heart was warm, as if the very fire her ancestor had feared was a comfort to her now. The voice behind her sang, repeating the voice in front, “I have seen the salvation of my God.”

Pauline turned. She thought afterwards that she had had no choice then, but it was not so. It was a movement as swift, as instinctive, as that with which one hand flies to balance the other, but it was deliberate. She whirled on the thing she had so long avoided, and the glorious creature looked past her at the shouting martyr beyond. She was giddy with the still violence of this last evening; she shut her eyes and swayed, but she was sustained by the air about her and did not fall. She opened her eyes again; there — as a thousand times in her looking-glass — there! The ruffled brown hair, the long nose, the firm compressed mouth, the taut body, the long arms, her dress, her gesture. It wore no supernatural splendour of aureole, but its rich nature burned and glowed before her, bright as if mortal flesh had indeed become what all lovers know it to be. Its colour bewildered by its beauty; its voice was Pauline’s, as she had wished it to be for pronouncing the imagination of the grand art. But no verse, not Stanhope’s, not Shakespeare’s, not Dante’s, could rival the original, and this was the original, and the verse was but the best translation of a certain manner of its life. The glory of poetry could not outshine the clear glory of the certain fact, and not any poetry could hold as many meanings as the fact. One element coordinated original and translation; that element was joy. joy had filled her that afternoon, and it was in the power of such joy that she had been brought to this closest propinquity to herself. It had been her incapacity for joy, nothing else, that had till now turned the vision of herself aside; her incapacity for joy had admitted fear, and fear had imposed separation. She knew now that all acts of love are the measure of capacity for joy; its measure and its preparation, whether the joy comes or delays.

Her manifested joy whirled on her with her own habitual movement. She sprang back from that immortality; no fear but a moment’s truce of wonder and bodily tremor. She looked in her own eyes and laboured to speak; a shout was in her. She wished to assent to the choice her beatitude had made. The shout sank within her and rose without; she had assented, then or that afternoon or before this life began. She had offered her joy to her betrayed ancestor; she heard now, though she saw nothing but those brilliant and lucid eyes, the noise of his victorious going. The unseen crowd poured and roared past her. Her debt was paid, and now only she might know why and when she had incurred it. The sacrifice had been accepted. His voice was shouting in her ears, as Foxe said he had shouted, To him that hath shall be given. He had had; she had been given to him. She had lived without joy that he might die in joy, but when she lived she had not known and when she offered she had not guessed that the sacrificial victim had died before the sacrificial act was accomplished; that now the act was for resurrection in death. Receding voices called still; they poured onwards to the martyrdom. The confusion that was round him was her own confusion of hostile horror at the fact of glory: her world’s order contending with distraction-what distraction!

One called: What of him that hath not? but who could be that had not? so universal, in itself and through its means, was the sublime honour of substituted love; what wretch so poor that all time and place would not yield a vicar for his distress, beyond time and place the pure vicariate of salvation? She heard the question, in that union of the centuries, with her mortal ears, as she heard excited voices round her, and the noise of feet, and the rattle at a distance of chains. She saw nothing, except the streets of the Hill and herself standing on the Hill. She felt no grief or fear; that was still to come or else it had been, according to choice of chronology. Her other self, or the image in which she saw both those choices in one vision, still stood opposite her, nor was its glory dimmed though and as her own intensity absorbed it.

After the shouted question she did not hear a reply, other sounds covered it. The scuffling, the rattling, the harsh alien voices went on; then the voice she had heard calling on the Lord cried: The ends of the earth be upon me. The roads had been doubled and twisted so that she could meet him there; as wherever exchange was needed. She knew it now from the abundant grace of the Hill or the hour: but exchange might be made between many mortal hearts and none know what work was done in the moment’s divine kingdom. There was a pause, ominous down all the years; a suspense of silence. Then suddenly she smelt burning wood; the fire was lit, he in it. She heard the voice once more: I have seen the salvation of my God.

He stood in the fire; he saw around him the uniforms — O uniforms of the Grand Duke’s Guard — the mounted gentlemen, the couple of friars, the executioners — O the woodcutter’s son singing in the grand art! — the crowd, men and women of his village. The heat scorched and blinded and choked him. He looked up through the smoke and flame that closed upon him, and saw, after his manner, as she after hers, what might be monstrous shapes of cherubim and seraphim exchanging powers, and among them the face of his daughter’s aeviternity. She only among all his children and descendants had run by a sacrifice of heart to ease and carry his agony. He blessed her, thinking her some angel, and in his blessing her aeviternity was released to her, and down his blessing beatitude ran to greet her, a terrible good. The ends of the world were on them. He dead and she living were made one with peace. Her way was haunted no more.

She heard the cry, and the sky over her was red with the glow of fire, its smell in her nostrils. It did not last. Her beatitude leant forward to her, as if to embrace. The rich presence enveloped her; out of a broken and contrite heart she sighed with joy. On the inhaled breath her splendour glowed again; on the exhaled it passed. She stood alone, at peace. Dawn was in the air; eccc omnia nova facio.

Soon after, as she came back to the house, she saw Stanhope approaching. She waited, outside her gate. He came up, saying with a smile: “Awake, lute and harp”— he made a gesture of apology —“I myself will awake right early.” She put out her hand.

“I owe you this,” she said. “I owe you this for ever.”

He looked at her. “It’s done then?” he asked, and she: “It’s done. I can’t tell you now, but it’s done.”

He was silent, studying her, then he answered slowly: “Arise, shine; your light is come; the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” His voice quickened: “And you’ll do it well, taking prettily and giving prettily, but the Lord’s glory, Periel, will manage to keep up with you, and I shall try.”

“Oh, you!” she said, pressing and releasing his hand-. “but you’ve got such a start!”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, “our handicaps are all different, and the race is equal. The Pharisees can even catch up the woman with the mites. Those who do not insist on Gomorrah.” She said: “Gomorrah?” and ‘the chill of the word struck even through her contemplation. She remembered the unanswered question of her vision: What of them that have not? As if the answer had been reserved for these lower circles, he gave it. He said: “The Lord’s glory fell on the cities of the plain, of Sodom and another. We know all about Sodom nowadays, but perhaps we know the other even better. Men can be in love with men, and women with women, and still be in love and make sounds and speeches, but don’t you know how quiet the streets of Gomorrah are? haven’t you seen the pools that everlastingly reflect the faces of those who walk with their own phantasms, but the phantasms aren’t reflected, and can’t be. The lovers of Gomorrah are quite contented, Periel; they don’t have to put up with our difficulties. They aren’t bothered by alteration, at least till the rain of the fire of the Glory at the end, for they lose the capacity for change, except for the fear of hell. They’re monogamous enough! and they’ve no children-no cherubim breaking into being or babies as tiresome as ours; there’s no birth there, and only the second death. There’s no distinction between lover and beloved; they beget themselves on their adoration of themselves, and they live and feed and starve on themselves, and by themselves too, for creation, as my predecessor said, is the mercy of God, and they won’t have the facts of creation. No, we don’t talk much of Gomorrah, and perhaps it’s as well and perhaps not.”

“But where?” she cried.

“Where but here? When all’s said and done there’s only Zion or Gomorrah,” he answered. “But don’t think of that now; go and sleep if you can, or you’ll be nervous this afternoon.

“Never,” she said. “Not nervous.”

“Well, that’s as it may be,” he said. “Still, sleep. The Sabbath and all that, even for the cattle. Be a lamb, and sleep.”

She nodded, went obediently through the gate, and paused, saying: “I shall see you presently?”

“Making my concluding appearance,” he said. “Unless the Lord decides to take his own call. The author has seemed to be out of the house rather often, but he may have been brought in at last. Till when, Periel, and with God.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/descent-into-hell/chapter9.html

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