The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Fourteen

The Moon of the Tarots

Nancy found herself alone. The mist round her was thinning; she could see a clear darkness beyond. She had known one pang when she felt Henry’s hands slip from around hers; then she had concentrated her will more entirely on doing whatever might be done to save whatever had to be saved from the storm, which now she no longer heard. But the fantastic mission on which she was apparently moving did not weigh upon her; her heart kept its lightness. There had come into her life with the mystery of the Tarots a new sense of delighted amazement; the Tarots themselves were not more marvellous than the ordinary people she had so long unintelligently known. By the slightest vibration of the light in which she saw the world she saw it all differently; holy and beautiful, if sometimes perplexing and bewildering, went the figures of her knowledge. They were all “posters of the sea and land”, and she too, in a dance that was happy if it was frightening. Nothing was certain, but everything was safe — that was part of the mystery of Love. She was upon a mission, but whether she succeeded or not didn’t matter. Nothing mattered beyond the full moment in which she could live to her utmost in the power and according to the laws of the dance. The dance of the Tarots, the dance of her blood, the dance of her mind, and whatever other measure it was in which Sybil Coningsby trod so high and disposed a movement. Hers couldn’t be that yet, couldn’t ever perhaps, but she could understand and answer it. Her father, Henry, Ralph, they were all stepping their parts, and she also — now, now, as the last shreds of the golden mist faded, and, throbbing and glad, she came into the dark stillness which awaited her.

On the edge of it she paused. The room of the images had been vaguely in her expectation, but if that indeed were where she stood then she could see nothing of it. Complete and cool night was about her. She glanced down; her hands were empty of the cards, but lifted as if she were still holding them, and she was aware that her palms were gently throbbing and tingling. It was something like neuralgia — only it wasn’t in the least like neuralgia. But if there could be a happy neuralgia, if some nerve could send to her brain the news of power and joy continually vibrant, then that was how her hands felt. It might so easily have been disagreeable, but it was not disagreeable; it was exquisite. Part of its very exquisiteness, indeed, was the knowledge that if this delight had been overstressed or uncontrolled then it would have been disagreeable. But the energy that thrilled there was exactly right; its tingling messages announced to her a state of easy health as the throbbing messages of diseased mankind proclaim so often a state of suffering. Joy itself was sensuous; she received its communication through the earth of which she was made.

She kept her hands very still, wondering at them. They had been so busy, with one thing and another, in the world, continually shaping something. What many objects had rested against those palms — chair-backs, cups, tennis-rackets, the hands of her friends, birds, books, bag-handles, umbrellas, clothes, bed-clothes, door-handles, ropes, straps, knives and forks, bowls, pictures, shoes, cushions — O, everything! and always she had had some purpose, her hands had been doing something, making something, that had never been before — not just so. They were always advancing on the void of the future, shaping her future. In Henry’s — exchanging beauty and truth; in her father’s — exchanging . . . the warm blood took her cheeks as she thought ashamedly of him. In Sybil’s not long since, receiving strength, imparting the tidings of her own feebleness. Full of the earth of the Tarots; holding on to Henry’s to stay the winds and waters of the Tarots. She stretched them out to either side of her; what could she do now to redeem the misfortune that threatened? What in this moment were her hands meant to shape by the mystical power which was hidden in them? She remembered the old woman’s hands waving above Sybil’s head; she remembered the priest’s hand that very morning raised for the ritual blessing; she remembered hands that she had seen in painting, the Praying Hands of Durer, the hands of Christ on the cross or holding off Saint Mary in some drawing of the garden tryst, the hands of the Divine Mother lifting the Child, the small hand of the Child Himself raised in benediction; she remembered the stretched hand of the Emperor directing the tumults of the world; the hands of the juggler who tossed the balls, the hand of the Fool as he summoned the last danger from its tomb, the lifted hands of the juggler and of the Fool as they came together, before the rain of gold had hidden them that evening from her sight.

It was no doubt a thing to wonder at, the significant power of man’s hands. She thought of the unknown philosopher who had wrought the Tarot images; his hands had been filled with spiritual knowledge; they perhaps had guided his mind as much as his mind his hands. What would the fortune-telling palmistry with which she had played have discovered in those passive and active palms? The centres of wisdom and energy, which had communicated elemental strength to the images and the paintings, so that other hands could release at their will earth and air and water and fire to go about the world? Release and direct. She stretched out her arms, instinctively passionate to control the storm which she believed, outside her present sense, to be raging over earth; and, as the back of her hands shone lucidly before her in the dark, she felt against them from beyond the first cold touches of the snow.

At the touch she became rigidly attentive. It was time then; something was about to happen. The darkness round her was changing. She could see below her again a gleam of gold; at first she thought it was the base upon which the images had danced, but it was not that, it was not clear and definite enough. It was rather the golden mist, but it was shaken now by an intrusion of white flakes. The confusion was at first far below her, but presently it was rushing upward, and as it came nearer and became larger she realized that she was indeed still standing in the secret room, in the darkness that had once been curtains; below her expanded the wide open spaces of the Downs. They too were covered with snow, but the tumult was less, and unmingled with that other strange glow: they lay, a winter vision, such as she had seen before in fields or towns. She saw them, white and silent, and then there swept up from the turmoil in the house a giant figure, a dimly defined form waving a huge club from which the snow poured in a continuous torrent. It rose, rushing towards her, and she thrust out her hands towards it, and it struck its club against them — they felt the blow, the blast of an icy wind, and were numbed, but life tingled in them again at once, and the ghostly shape was turned from his course, and sent plunging back into the turmoil from which it came. Others rushed up after it; the invoked elementals were seeking a larger scope. From raging about and in the house they were bursting abroad over the Downs, over the world where men kept Christmas, one way or another, and did not know that everlasting destruction was near. Between that threat and its fulfilment stood the girl’s slender figure, and the warm hands of humanity in hers met the invasion and turned it. They moved gently over the storm; they moved as if in dancing ritual they answered the dancing monstrosities that opposed them. It was not a struggle but a harmony, yet a harmony that might at any moment have become a chaos. The column of whirling shapes arose and struck, and were beaten abroad under the influence of those extended palms, and fell in other whirling columns; and so the whole of the magical storm was sent pouring back into the place of its origin; and out on the Downs, over villages and roads, over the counties and cities of England, over rivers and mountains, there fell but the natural flakes of a snowy Christmas.

The carols of Christmas, wherever they were sung that night, were sung in ignorance of the salvation which endured among them, or in ignorance at least of the temporal salvation which the maiden-mother of Love preserved. But the snow ceased to fall as the night drew on, and before midnight the moon rode in a clear sky. Yet another moon shone over the house on the Downs, like that which was among the one and twenty illuminations of the Greater Trumps. For there, high between two towers, the moon shines, clear and perfect, and the towers are no longer Babels ever rising and falling, but complete in their degree. Below them again, on either side of a long and lonely road, two handless beasts — two dogs, or perhaps a wolf and a dog — sit howling, as if something which desired attainment but had not entered into the means of attainment cried out unprofitably to the gentle light disseminated from above; and again below, in the painting of mysterious depths, some other creature moves in the sea, in a coat of shell, clawed and armed, shut up in itself, but even itself crawling darkly towards a land which it does not comprehend. The sun is not yet risen, and if the Fool moves there he comes invisibly, or perhaps in widespread union with the light of the moon which is the reflection of the sun. But if the Tarots hold, as has been dreamed, the message which all things in all places and times have also been dreamed to hold, then perhaps there was meaning in the order as in the paintings; the tale of the cards being completed when the mystery of the sun has opened in the place of the moon, and after that the trumpets cry in the design which is called the judgement, and the tombs are broken, and then in the last mystery of all the single figure of what is called the world goes joyously dancing in a state beyond moon and sun, and the number of the Trumps is done. Save only for that which has no number and is called the Fool, because mankind finds it folly till it is known. It is sovereign or it is nothing, and if it is nothing then man was born dead.

She stood above the world, and her outstretched and downturned palms felt the shocks, and she laughed aloud to see the confusion of clubs striking upward and failing to break past the small shields that were defending the world from them. She laughed to feel the blows as once she had laughed and mocked at Henry when his fingers struck her palm; danger itself was turned into some delight of love. As if her laughter were a spiritual sword, the last great rush of spectral giants fell back from it: the two-edged weapon of laughter sprang from her mouth, as some such conquering power springs from the mouth of the mystical hero of the Apocalypse. The laughter and the protection that are beyond the world entered her to preserve the world, and, still laughing for mere joy of contact and conflict, she moved forward. The ghostly elementals broke and fled in chaos; a grey swirl of snow received them, and then the golden mist was around her again and she was sinking and moving forward through it. It swirled and shook and condensed; darkness sprang through it. She stood by the golden base, empty of images, in the room where the dark hangings enclosed her; and then she saw across the table, confronting her, the wild face of Joanna, and her clutching hands, and her mouth gnashing itself together upon incoherent words.

Nancy’s hands dropped to her side; the joy that possessed her quietened; she became still. All then was not yet done. The storm had been turned back, but she did not know if it was quenched, and this made personification of storm raged at her a few feet off. Joanna had come to the inner room, when the mist already drawn from its hiding-place among or in the dancing figures by the operation of the lovers had filled the whole chamber; she had entered through the breach which they had made in the constraining power that localized the images, or, to put it another way, she had been received into the vapour which they had loosed from the expanding dance. As Henry had seen her for a moment, so she had seen him; she entering, he returning. His mortal purpose had been overthrown, and his mind had accepted that and submitted. But hers, thwarted long since, had overthrown the mind itself in its collapse. Babel had overwhelmed her being; she walked among the imagined Tarots seeking for the love which she held to be her right, her possession, her living subject. Wild, yet not more wild than most men, she sought to nourish the god in her own way, and that way was by the dream of Horus and vengeance and torments. Full of that hope, tenderness mingled with cruelty, devotion with pride, government with tyranny, maternity with lust, she raged among the symbols of the everlasting dance, and madly believed that, by virtue of her godhead, she ruled it and was more than a part of it. Henry and she had seen each other, then she had rushed on. She rushed into the centre of the room, where now the mist blew in widening circles round the empty base, and saw the void. There, where all restoration should have lain was nothing; there, where the slain god should have lived, the very traces of his blood had vanished; for she had passed the fallen Tarot paintings in her haste, and they lay behind her, hidden and neglected, upon the floor. But she saw Nancy, and at Nancy she now gazed and gibbered. The silence for some seconds was yet unbroken; the old woman mouthed across the empty pedestal, but no sound came from her. Nancy, unafraid but aware of her ignorance before this questing anger, after the pause said, half-faltering: “You’re-still looking?”

The old woman’s face lit up with a ghastly certainty. She nodded vehemently. “Ah,” she said, “still looking, kind lady. Kind lady, to hide him there!”

Nancy moved her hands a little. “Indeed,” she said, “I haven’t hidden him. Tell me what you want and I’ll help look.”

Joanna went off into a fit of ironical chuckling. “O, yes, you’ll help,” she said. “O, you’ll help! You’ve helped all this long time, haven’t you? But it was you who ran about the tent and peeped underneath to see if the child was there! Peeping here and peeping there! and wriggling through at last to take him away!”

“What have I taken?” Nancy said, knowing the madness, half-convinced by it, and half-placating it. “What could I take from you? I’ll give it back, if you’ll tell me, or I’ll look for it everywhere with you.”

Joanna, up against the table of the Tarots, leaned across it suddenly and caught Nancy’s hand in her own. The girl felt the old fingers clutch her and squeeze into her with a numbing strength, so that the free activity in which she had moved during her conflict with visions was now imprisoned and passive. She resisted the impulse to struggle and let her hand lie still.

“I’ll look for it,” Joanna said. “I know where you keep him. The blood in the blood and the body in the body. I’ll let him out of you.” She wrenched the girl nearer, and sprawled over the table, leaning her head towards Nancy’s breast. “I hear him,” she breathed. “It’s he that’s beating in you. I’ll let him out.”

Nancy shook suddenly. The laughter that had been in her had died away; a fantastic wonder possessed her whether she might now be paying for her mastery of the storm. Better perhaps to have died with Henry in the snow than . . . but this was nonsense: she wasn’t going to die. She was going to live and find Henry, and show him the palms that had taken the snow, and make him kiss them for reward, and lay hers against his, his that had begun and sent the clubbed elementals right into hers, and all ways adore the mystery of Love. The mystery of Love couldn’t be that she should die here . . . with only the old woman near. Aunt Sybil would come, or Mr. Lee, or her father . . . Meanwhile, she must try and love this old woman.

She was jerked forward again. Joanna scrambled upright and dragged Nancy in turn across the table; then, holding her tight-stretched, she bent her head down towards her, and gabbled swiftly: “The hand you took him with, the hand of power, the hand of magic — there, there, that’s where we let him out. The middle of the hand — didn’t you know? That’s where the god goes in and out.” She twisted the girl’s hand upward and scratched at the palm with the nails of her other hand. “I shall see him,” she ran on, “in the first drop of blood, the blood that the cats smell out; that’s why the cat brought me here, the cat that lives in the storm, the tiger that runs by the Fool. It’ll come”— her nails tore at the hand —“and he’ll come out of it. My own, my little one, my sweet chuck! come, come along, come.”

The pain struck Nancy as being quite sufficient; it suggested to her that she might scream — scream out — call out. There wouldn’t, she thought, be much harm in calling out. But also she must love this old woman — wish her well — understand her — see her goodness. But the old woman was one and she was one — and she couldn’t see any clear reason why the old woman should spoil hands that Henry had said were beautiful. She made a final effort to break away, and didn’t succeed; almost upside down as she felt she was, that was hardly surprising. So she called, in as steady a voice as possible: “Aunt! Henry! Father! Aunt! Aunt Sybil!”

Her voice ceased abruptly. Instead of any of these appearing out of the golden mist that hid the doorway from her, there was a sudden soft thud, and on the table close up to her stretched arm appeared a cat. Nancy in the few minutes she had spent with Sybil in the hall had heard and seen nothing of the cat, and had had no opportunity since. And she had never heard or seen one in the house. But there it crouched, mewing, turning its head from her to Joanna and back again, unsheathing and sheathing its claws, moving its restless tail. Nancy’s first thought as she saw it was, “It’s got no hands,” and this seemed to her so horrible that she nearly lost control. It had no hands, it had no spiritual instruments of intention, only paws that patted or scratched, soft padded cushions or tearing iron nails — all four, all four, and no hands. The cat put one paw suddenly on her arm, and she almost shrieked at that soft dab. It tried to lift its paw, but its claws were entangled in the light stuff of the afternoon frock she had on, and were caught. After a moment’s struggle it ripped them out, and Nancy seemed to hear the sound of the light stuff tearing — absurd, of course, but if it should tear it right away, and her arm lay bare like her wrist and hand, and the cat and Joanna both tore and scratched . . . Love . . . She must love Joanna. Joanna wanted something, and, though she was afraid Joanna wouldn’t find it, she herself must try and love.

Never since the child had died had Joanna been nearer than then to finding the power of whom she told herself fantastic tales, than when the girl’s struggling will fixed itself again on that centre. In the place of the images the god offered himself to his seekers, through the effort of his creature. In the depth of Nancy’s eyes as she turned them on Joanna, in the sound of her voice as she spoke, he allowed his mystery to expand, as she said, “Indeed, it isn’t here. I’d help you if I could. It’ll do it if we let it.”

The old woman did not meet her eyes; she was looking at the cat. “The cat that lives in the storm,” she said. “Go, my dear; go and show me. You brought me here — show me; show me. She’s got it in her, hasn’t she? Go and get it out.”

The cat stared at her; then it turned its eyes to Nancy’s face, and, keeping them fixed there, seemed to swivel its body slowly round. Nancy had an awful thought, “It’s going to spring! It’s got no hands and it’s going to spring! It’ll tear me because it’s got no hands!” In the last of the Tarot cards, in the unnumbered illumination, she had seen something like that — a beast rearing against the Fool: in the midst of the images, rigid in the centre of the base, she had seen it, a beast rearing against the Fool. It had not then seemed to be attacking exactly; rather it had seemed as if poised in the very act of a secret measure trodden with its controlling partner among the more general measure trodden by all the shapes. The Fool and the tiger, the combined and single mystery — but it was going to spring. She brought up her other hand from where it had held the edge of the table, to help her keep her footing against Joanna’s strong pull; and she slipped a little more forward as she did so, bringing her face too near to that crouched energy that was gathering itself . . . too near, too near. Her hand came up, clutched, missed, for the cat slithered aside snarling, and then, as her hand came down on the golden table, crouched again, and was unexpectedly caught by its neck. A high, peevish voice said, “Good God! What is all this? Let go at once, you wretched creature! Do you hear me? Let my daughter alone. Damn, you, woman, let my daughter alone!”

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