The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Twelve

The Falling Tower

In Aaron’s workroom the noise of the blizzard was very high. The two who crossed the room heard it, and heard it roaring still higher as Henry unlocked the inner door. But when they had entered that other room, just as they passed through the curtains, there was a change. The high screech of the wind altered by an infinitely small but complete variation. Nancy heard it no longer screaming, but singing. Her hand in Henry’s, she paused between the hangings.

“Do you hear? My dear, do you hear?” she exclaimed. Holding the hangings for her, and listening, he looked back. “I hear,” he said. “It’s catching us up, Nancy.”

“No, but that’s gone,” she protested. “It sounds different here. Hark!”

As he dropped the curtain, the habitual faint music of the room greeted them. It seemed to the girl that the roar of the wind was removed to an infinite distance, where it mingled with other sounds, and was received into the feet of the dancers, and by them beaten into fresh sound. She stood; she looked; she said to Henry: “Have you the Tarots, darling?”

He held them out, the suit of sceptres, the suit of deniers, the princely cards of cups and staves.

“I wonder,” she said, “if we shall be able to find our way in by them alone.”

He looked at her fully for the first time since on the terrace their eyes had beheld each other in the snow.

“I can’t tell; this has never happened before,” he said. “What I tried to do has failed; perhaps it was better that it failed. I did what seemed wise —”

“I know you did,” she said. “Dearest Henry, I know you did. I do understand that, though I understand so little. There’s nothing between us at all. You did — and I did — and now here we are. But you’ve always talked as if there was a way to — what do you call them? — the Greater Trumps, and as if the Greater ruled the Lesser.”

“Certainly they do,” he answered, “and therefore the suits are less than the Trumps. But it may be a very dangerous thing to thrust among them as we are, so — half-prepared.”

“Still, we can’t wait, can we?” she said. “And if time would let us, my heart won’t — it’s beating too hard. Kiss me, Henry, and, in case we are divided, remember that I always wanted to love. And now for the cards. Look, will you hold them or shall I? and what’s the best thing to do?”

“Do as you did the other night,” he said, “and I will put my hands round yours, and hold the eight high cards that are left to us; and then let’s move towards the table as you did, but this time we will not stop till we are compelled. And God help us now — if there be a God — for I do not know what we can do or say if we come knowingly into the measure of the dance.”

“All is well; all is most well,” she murmured, and they put themselves in the order he had proposed, but he more fearfully than she. Then, the Tarots pointed towards the dancers, they took the first slow step forward together.

As they did so, the golden mist flowed out again to meet them, and flowed round them as it had compassed her but two nights before. This time, so intent was her will upon its work, she did not look up to him at all, and it was he who was startled by the apparent distortion of her face below his, by the huge enlargement of their hands, by the gigantic leaves that shook and quivered in their clasp, trembling till the very colours upon them seemed to live and move, and the painted figures floated as if of their own volition from the mortal grasp that held them. He did not dare pause, nor could he feel a trace of faltering in the girl who stepped forward, foot by foot, so close to him; only there passed through his mind a despairing ironic consciousness that not thus, certainly not thus, had he purposed to attempt the entrance into the secret dance. He had meant to go victoriously, governing the four elemental powers, governing the twin but obedient heart and mind that should beat and work in time with his, lover and friend but servant also and instrument. By her devotion to his will he had hoped to discover the secret of domination, and of more — of the house of life where conquerors, heroes, and messiahs were sent out to bear among men the signs of their great parentage.

And now he was drawn after her. It had been she who had pointed the way, the thought of which had been driven from his mind by the catastrophe that had overwhelmed it. It was she who went first, not by his will but by her own — nor could he then guess how much, to Nancy’s own heart, her purpose and courage seemed to derive from him. His power was useless till she drew it forth; it worked through her, but it was from him that it still obscurely rose. Though she ruled instead of him in the place of the mist, it was he who had given her that sovereignty, and it seemed to her then that, though all dominions of heaven and earth denied it, she would acknowledge that profound suzerainty while her being had any knowledge of itself at all.

She pressed on. The great leaves shook and parted and drifted upon the wind, which, as before, seemed to stir in the golden cloud. As one by one they were carried off they took on the appearance of living forms; the transparency which was illumined with the crimson and azure tints of the Queen of Chalices floated before her, farther and farther away, and was indeed a crowned and robed woman bearing the crimson cup; the black and purple of the Esquire of Deniers showed for a moment before it was swallowed up in the cloud as a negro youth in an outlandish garment holding aloft a shining bronze coin, and all surrounded by a halo of light which had once been the papyrus where had been figured the now-living shape. Her hands below her were lucent and fiery in the mist; the golden cloud above those pale shapes, infused with crimson fire of blood, dazzled and dazed her; they were more splendid and terrific even than the visions that rose from them and fled upon the wind. Around them, closing them in, supporting them, were other mighty hands — his. Of his presence otherwise she was by now unaware; she might, but for those other hands, have been alone. But those four hands that by mischance had loosed the winds and the waters on earth were stretched out to recover the power they had inadvertently cast away. The power within her, the offspring of her transmuted love, longed in itself, beating down her own consciousness, for some discovery beyond where mightier power should answer it. She pressed on.

It was at the fourth step that Henry lost her. Still aware of the irony of their movement, still aware of himself as against her, and of both of them as against the mystery of paintings and images, he lost himself for less than a moment in a regret that things should have turned to this result. This was not what he had meant to be; his mind added that this was not what should have been, and almost before his reproach had grown from his pulse into his thought she was gone. His hands were empty; the cloud swirled about him, but he had now no companion. He took a single solitary step; then he ceased to move. He hesitated in the mist; the wind struck him as if it had swept the girl away and was minded to fling him into ruin. He pressed back and fought against it, but not for his own sake then so much as for hers. It pressed him, not in sudden blasts, but with a steady force, so that he could, by leaning against it, just maintain himself. As if he were still on the terrace fighting the storm, he set himself against this oppression, as if indeed all that had chanced since had never been, but for one unrealized change. On the terrace his danger and hers had been known to him with equal urgency. But in fact, since then much had happened. His own schemes had been scattered; her love for him, her love for something greater than him, had shone in his darkness; her laughter had stirred it, her voice had called him from it. Following her, he had come so far; he filled his mind now with desire for her salvation. Let himself go, let the world perish, so only that she walked safely among the perils of this supernatural world. He had mocked at her fear, and now fear for her was in his heart. The mist was in his throat and nostrils; he was choking in it. His eyes were blind, his head swam, in that terrible golden cloud. But, more than that, he knew chiefly that her hands were gone, and that she also was alone.

It was then that the hands took him. At first he did not realize, he did not even notice, what was happening. Filled with a sense of Nancy’s possible danger, himself choking and groping in that intolerable shining cloud, and fighting all the time to keep securely upright in the persistent wind, he hardly felt the light clasp that took hold of one ankle. But as he began to move his foot he found it fixed, and fixed by what felt like a hand. He looked hastily down; nothing could be seen through the floating gold. He tried to pull his foot up from the ground; he could not do it. On the point of bending to free his ankle, he hesitated; the mist was so thick down there. He jerked it sharply; the grasp of whatever held it grew tighter, and something slid round the other ankle and held fast. Certainly they were hands; he felt the fingers and thumbs. On the realization he stood still; against these adversaries it was no use battling like a frightened child. Perhaps if something hostile indeed lived in this world he could overcome it — so long as his will held. But what was his will to do?

His feet were being drawn together. He set his will against it, but compulsion moved them. He swept an arm round him, and as it came to his rear his wrist also was seized, and the arm was drawn against his back and held there. The grasp was not harsh, it was even gentle, but it was absolute. It, or another like it, caught his other wrist and drew that also back. The wind ceased; it might have been blowing merely to delay him until the imprisonment was complete.

For what seemed hours nothing more happened, only he was held. His strong and angry imagination strove in vain to find some method of release, and miserably failed. There came to him out of the mist, which had receded a little from him, the sound of music, now increasing, now diminishing, as if something went past him and again returned. He could, once or twice, have believed that he heard voices calling, but they also died away. A faint light shone at intervals; the mist shook as if trembling with a quick passage. But more than these hints of existences he could not catch. He stood there, seeing nothing else. His heart began to faint; this perhaps was the end. Motionless in the place of the Tarots, as motionless as the Fool that stood in the centre — he himself, indeed, a fool of the Tarots. And Nancy — was she also held — her young delight, her immortal courage, her desire for love, in this unchanging golden mist? “If we are divided, remember that I always wanted to love.” There was nothing here to love but himself — if indeed he wanted to love.

The hours grew into days, into years. Imperceptibly the grasp had tightened; that round his ankles had drawn them together, and that also round his wrists. He was still incapable of movement, but his incapacity was more closely constrained; he was forced more tightly into the mere straight shape of his enclosed body, for the mist closed again round him and moulded itself to his form. He was defined as himself, a basrelief of him was shaped on that cloud, now almost plastic in its consistence; he could breathe and that was all. His thoughts began to fail within him; he was aware only of his senses, and they were now limited to the sight and feel of the mist. If it had not been for the slight tingling everywhere which the golden vagueness seemed to cause as it pressed on him, and the strong grasp upon his limbs, he would not have been conscious of anything at all — there would have been nothing of which to be conscious. He could no longer even strive to free himself, for the very idea of freedom was passing from him. There was no freedom for there was no knowledge; he was separated from all that he had been, except that dimly, within or without, in that aeonian solitude, there occasionally loomed something of a memory of one or other of the Greater Trumps of the Tarots. Somewhere, very vaguely, he would think that he saw in front of him, fashioned of the mist, yet thrown up against the mist, the hierophantic Woman or the Lovers, or the great Tower which reached almost out of sight, so loftily it grew up and then always just as his dimmed eyes strained to see the rising walls — tottered and swayed and began in a horrible silence to fall apart, but never quite apart. It was raised by hands which, from within the rising walls, came climbing over, building themselves into a tower, thrusting those below them into place, fists hammering them down, so that the whole Tower was made up of layers of hands. But as it grew upward they changed; masonry below, thinner levels of masonry above, and, still above, masonry changing into hands, a few levels of moving hands, and (topmost of all) the busy working fists and fingers. And then a sudden spark of sunlight would fall on it from above and the fists would fall back out of sight, and the hands would disjoin, swiftly but reluctantly, holding on to each other till the ruin tore them apart, and the apparent masonry, as it was rent by some invisible force, would again change back into clutching and separating hands. They clung together fantastically; they shivered and writhed to avoid some principle of destruction that lurked within them, and as he felt that ugly living twist and evasion they would altogether fade back into the mist from which they grew. The years went by, and every now and then, once in every four or five, the Tower was again shown, and each time it was a little closer than before.

The years grew into centuries. He was no longer looking at anything; sight also had departed. Very slowly the Tower had moved right up against him; he could see it no more, for he was one with it. A quiver began at the bottom of his spine, spreading through his loins, and then it ceased, and he felt rigidity within him — up, up, till he was petrified from loins to head, himself a tower of stone. Even so, he meant to do something, to lift a great marble arm and reach up and pick the stars from heaven and tangle them into a crown — a hard sharp golden crown — for a head such as Nimrod’s, perhaps his own. He was setting up a gigantic image of himself for heaven and earth to adore. He was strong and great enough to do what no man had done before, and to stand on the top of some high place which would be stable among the circling lights of the celestial world. And then always, just as he felt his will becoming fixed and strong enough to raise his arm and break the clasp of those cold hands, just as he dreamed of the premonitory prick of the starry spikes upon his head, something within him began to fall. He trembled with giddiness; he would have swayed but could not. There ran a downward rippling through his flesh; his lower jaw dropped; his knees shook; his loins quivered; he was dragged at from within in every direction; he was on the edge of being torn into destruction. Then again slowly he was steadied, and again his long petrifaction proceeded, and so through cycle after cycle of years the making and breaking of his will went on, and slowly after many repetitions his heart failed within him and he assented to the impossibility of success. The stars were beyond his reach; Babel was for ever doomed to fall — at the last minute, when the plains of heaven lay but a few yards beyond its rising structure, confusion invaded it, and spread, and the incoherent workers fled, and the elements of the world roared out each upon its own passage, and came together again in wars and tumults, conflicts and catastrophes. But now, each time that he felt the dreadful ruin go falling through him, he heard also one voice rising among that strange and shattering chorus and saying: “Remember I wanted to love.” Out of each overthrow it sounded, and at every overthrow more clearly. This alone of all his past was urgent; this alone had meaning in the void to which his purpose crashed.

It came more quickly; it was repeated again and again; it grew shorter, words dropping away from it. The centuries ended; a quicker rush of years began; vehemently the call reached him, and as he strove to answer it with some single willingness of intention, the hands of the supernatural powers released their hold. He moved and stumbled; times rushed round him; something brushed against his legs; the mist swirled and broke, and as he stepped uncertainly forward he found himself looking into the face of Joanna, and then the golden cloud again swept between them, and parted once more the two most passionate seekers of the Tarots.

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