The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Fifteen

The Wanderers in the Beginning

The descent of the golden mist separated the inhabitants of the house from the sight of each other, with the single exception of Sybil and Aaron. The servants, caught in the hall, clung together, not daring to move yet frightened to remain where they were. They felt in the closeness of hands and bodies the only suggestion of safety, as, long since, our scarcely human ancestors crowded together against night and the perils of the night. The cook gasped continuously; her hysterical companion was reduced to a shaking misery of moans; even the silent Amabel quivered spasmodically as she clutched the arms of her unseen colleagues. Between them the mist rolled and stayed.

In the corridor above, ignoring social divisions, reducing humanity to an equality of bewildered atoms, it had swept between Ralph and his father. Ralph, frankly defeated by this inexplicable amazement, fell back against the wall in a similar stupor to the cook’s. A world upon which he had all his life relied had simply ceased to exist. Mist on mountains, fogs in towns, he had heard of; sea-fogs and river-mists. But here was neither sea nor river, neither mountain nor town. Existence as he knew it had just gone out. In a minute or two he would pull himself together and do something. But this stuff, as he leaned against the wall, was damned unpleasant: the wall gave to his back, and he came hastily upright, feeling gingerly for it. He couldn’t feel it; he couldn’t feel any difference between anything.

He brought his hand towards his thigh, trying to touch himself, and couldn’t: where he ought to be was nothing but this thick consistence. He closed his hand upon itself, and what felt like fingers pressed more deeply into the same shifting and resisting matter. He could feel himself all right, so long as he didn’t definitely try to find himself. But when he did, he wasn’t there. That was silly: he was there. He put up both hands to his head — at least to where his head ought to have been, and still, if his head was there, he couldn’t get it. This porridge-like substance oozed between his fingers and clung to them — porridge or thin mud. He had had a tooth out once, and afterwards felt as if the tooth was still there. Suppose his whole body had been pulled out, and he were only feeling as if it were there. But the rest of the world? That was gone too. Suppose everything had just been pulled out — leaving only the place where it had been, and himself feeling the place, seeming sometimes full and sometimes empty? For a moment he visualized a hole in the air, out of which the round world had been neatly and painlessly extracted, but his mind, unused to metaphysical visions, refused to pursue this thought, and restored him to the simple view that he was feeling very funny, probably a bit overtired with all this snow. Nevertheless, he couldn’t forget that never in his life, fresh, tired, or overtired, had he searched for himself and not found himself. His hold on sanity depended on the fact that the fingers of either hand did sometimes rub together as he moved them, though the two hands never quite met each other. If they only could, he would be getting back to normal; something would have joined. There would have been a kind of shape, a point of new beginning, a definite fixture, in this horrible mess, where at present were only two wandering feelers, antennae moving about in a muddy mass. He wondered abruptly what his father was feeling like, but no sound — yes, but there was a sound, four sounds. Four separate notes of music, in an ascending scale, came to him, faint and monotonously repeated — la, la, la, la; la, la, la, la; la, la, la, la. Well, sooner or later perhaps this incredible nightmare would stop.

Mr. Coningsby had found himself cut off from Ralph with as much sudden expedition as Ralph had experienced. But, unlike his son, he did not feel the cloud that so surrounded and deprived him as being thickly material. It was an offence, certainly, but an offence of shocked bewilderment. It removed his world from him as it had removed Ralph’s and, like Ralph and the servants, he instinctively put out his hand to find companionship. He found — not companionship certainly, but what he had found before, another hand that laid hold of his, a strong, gentle, cold, strange hand. He pulled his own hastily back, and the other let it go. It had rather invited than constrained him, and it did not attempt to control. He rubbed his fingers together distastefully, and pretended that it might have been Joanna’s hand or Stephen’s. Anything else — it couldn’t be anything else. It might be Henry’s or Aaron’s — it might even have been Ralph’s. Only he was, in spite of himself, certain that it hadn’t been Ralph’s or Aaron’s or Henry’s, and, in spite of himself, he didn’t believe it to be Stephen’s or Joanna’s; it had been too cold and strong for any mortal hand. It was then — it wasn’t; certainly it wasn’t. Or if it was, then the only thing to be done was to keep out of the way of these released marionettes. “Robots!” Mr. Coningsby indignantly thought, though how the Robots had got from their table to the corridor he didn’t attempt to explain. He would get right out of the house — but the storm was outside. It cut him off from his home, from London, from trains and taxis; it shut him in and he must stay in. And within was the mist. There was, Mr. Coningsby realized, absolutely nowhere in the universe he could get to. He was there, and there he was going to stop.

Blundering along what he supposed to be the corridor, he exclaimed aloud, “Lunacy!” At the word all sorts of dim memories of his work awoke, only he seemed to be on the wrong side of them. He had never heard of a lunatic whose delusion was that a whirling snowstorm shut him up in a golden cloud, where cold hands touched his. Some lunatics were violent and had to be held down by others’ hands. What if he, struggling in his horror, became violent, and those hands held him? Suppose his mind was, by their judgements, mad? Lunacy — lunacy — what was lunacy? What was the mad mind wrestling with contemptuous and powerful enemies? What was he doing at the moment? If he should be caught and carried away for ever into the depths and distances which opened now and then before him — the mist falling away on either side and making a league-long valley of itself, or heaving up and leaving a great abyss round which it swirled and then covered it again. Borne into it . . . taking precedence, O, for ever and ever taking desolate and lunatic preference of the elder sons of younger sons of peers. They would always be behind him; they could never catch him up. As if bound upon a great wheel, spinning round, with lives bound to it — no wonder he was giddy; the mist or the wheel had made him so. That was why he saw the depths — as the wheel turned; it didn’t go quickly, but it was always revolving, and he had been on it for so long, so many years, and now he was old and sinking deeper and deeper down. But the elder sons would never catch him up; they were tied to it too.

His head was aching with the dizziness of the revolutions all the same; wheels within wheels — he had heard that phrase before. The mists were revolving round him or he in them: which — what — was it? Wheels within wheels — there had been some phrase of glory, angels or something, wheels full of eyes, cycles in cycles all vigilant and intelligent, revolving. These weren’t eyes; these were hands. Perhaps hands were eyes; if the eye of the body was dark, if the hand had no power — a vague wheel of innumerable hands all intertwined and clasped and turning, turning faster and faster, turning out of mud and into the mist, hands falling from it, helplessly clutching . . .

It was at this moment that Mr. Coningsby, blindly edging along the corridor, his own hands feeling nervously along the wall, touched a door-handle; he turned it, went in, found himself in his own room, still miraculously and mercifully free from mist, and slammed the door behind him. It was at the same moment that a voice within him said in tones of startled concern, “Nancy? Sybil?” If they were out there, as of course they were — he had seen Sybil in the hall when he was calling “Fire!” down the stairs. But Sybil — he knew it and admitted it at last — didn’t matter. In any unusual variation of normal things — snowstorms or shipwrecks or burning houses — he could have regarded himself as Sybil’s superior. But this was entire subversion of normal things, a new world, a world of lunacy, and he was not superior to her there. Confronted with any utterly new experience, he was her inferior, for he existed only in his relationships, and she — she existed in herself. There was certainly no point in his looking for Sybil.

All this he understood in a swift revelation; but he understood also that Nancy was different. Nancy was not merely his daughter — she was much more likely to find him useful than Sybil was. And he didn’t trust Henry to look after her; he had always thought that Henry was more concerned with himself than with Nancy. Poised three steps within the room, Mr. Coningsby turned round and looked unhappily at the closed door. Must he really go back into that mist on the chance of being useful to her? It seemed he must. “Blast!” Mr. Coningsby said aloud, in a rare explosion of disgust. Sybil, Ralph, Henry — any of these might be looking after her; yes, but he didn’t know they were. Besides, there was Joanna. His altruism excited into action by this opportune dislike (as so often happens: even love often owing more to hate than perfection of love could altogether approve), he went back to the door, and observed disagreeably that the golden cloud was beginning to ooze through it. He was past surprise by now; he didn’t even try to see that it was coming through the keyhole or anywhere except straight through the wood. There it was, growing thicker. In that case it was just as well that he’d already determined to leave the room, since things would soon be as bad within as without. Very well; only this time he must keep his head; he wouldn’t be any use to Nancy if he lost it. No nonsense about wheels or hands that were eyes or distances. This was a house; it had a fog in it; he was Lothair Coningsby, and he was going to find his daughter in case she was frightened by an ugly old woman. Very well. He opened the door.

Actually, when he had gone a little distance down the corridor, he thought the mist wasn’t too bad. He even ventured to open his mouth, and say in a curiously subdued voice, “Nancy!” He didn’t quite admit that he didn’t want any — anybody — anybody with inhuman hands to hear him, but he knew it would be very inconvenient if they did. But nothing at all happened, blessedly. So he took a few more steps and said “Nancy” again. This time another form stepped against his own — very nearly crashed into him — and a voice said, “She hasn’t come back then?”

Mr. Coningsby, recovering from a spasmodic fear that the new appearance might be one of the presences of the cloud, peering closer, saw that it was Henry, and his fear spoke angrily: “What d’ye mean — come back? Why aren’t you with her?”

“Because I can’t get there,” Henry said. “God only knows where she is, and if He does He knows why I’m not there.”

“Don’t stand there talking about God,” Mr. Coningsby snapped. “Tell me what devil’s trick you’ve played on her.”

“When I tried to kill you,” Henry began in a low, monotonous voice, as if he had often said it over to himself, “because I thought you stood in the way of the entrance into the —”

“When you what?” Mr. Coningsby cried out, “Tried to kill me? Are you mad? When did you try to kill me?” The nightmare was getting worse; he couldn’t really be standing in this accursed welter of golden cloud talking to his daughter’s lover of his own plotted murder. Had there been any trying to kill him? or had he been killed? and was this mist the ghostly consequence of death? He checked in time to hear Henry say:

“When I brought the storm out of the Tarots. I poured the waters on you out of their vessels and I beat the winds against you with the staffs because you wouldn’t give up the cards. But she went away to stop it.”

“Stop it!” Mr. Coningsby said, clutching at the first words he really understood. “I should think she would stop it! What under heaven are you talking about?” He peered closely at Henry’s face, and was struck silent by what he saw in eyes of which the brightness had been dulled. Pallid and fixed, the face looked back at him; mild and awful, the voice answered him, “I meant to use her, and now I can’t find her. She’s gone beyond me, and I can’t catch her up. You may.”

“I certainly will,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I— I— Where is she?”

“She’s gone into the dance,” Henry said, “and I don’t know whether even she can hold her post there. I was a fool once and dreamed, and I tried to kill you because you were in the way of my dreams.”

“You were a fool all right,” Mr. Coningsby said, “and if this utterly detestable nonsense you’re talking means anything, you were a great deal worse than a fool. Pull yourself . . . ”

Henry looked at him, and he stopped. No man with a face of that colour and of that agony would be talking nonsense — not if he knew it. If the storm had been — but storms weren’t! Nor, of course, was mist. Nancy was trying to stop the storm — he’d got that much — and she’d gone into the dance. That, whatever else it meant, meant those damned silly marionettes in their infernal black magic of a room — where Joanna had been going. He had known all the time that Joanna would be in it somehow.

He pushed past Henry, rather thankful even in his angry distraction to feel Henry’s undoubted body as he shoved it away, and said, “I’ll deal with you after. If you can’t find her, I will.”

Unexpectedly docile, Henry said: “You may. That may be the judgement. Do it; do it, if only you can.”

Mr. Coningsby had gone on several paces when he, without quite knowing why, looked back over his shoulder. It was a silly thing to do, he knew, with this God-forsaken mist all round him and when he had done it he knew it all the more. For looking back was like seeing things reversed; he was looking back in two ways at once. He saw Henry, but he saw him upside down — a horrible idea. Nevertheless, there it was: Henry was, in the ridiculous reflections of the mist, hanging in the void, his head downwards; his hands out of sight behind him somewhere, his leg — one leg — drawn up across the other — it was the other he was hanging by. For a full minute Mr. Coningsby stood gaping over his shoulder at that vision seen in one of the opening hollows of the cloud, then a driving gold as of storm swept across it, and he could see no more. He turned his head again, but now he stood still. He was feeling sick and ill; he was feeling very old; he wished Sybil were with him. But she wasn’t, and however sick and ill and old he was, still Nancy was somewhere about, in danger of being frightened, if nothing worse, by that loathsome hag of a Joanna. He went on, and for the first time since his childhood prayed, prayed that he mightn’t look round again, prayed that Nancy at least when he found her might be whole and sane, prayed that if Sybil was any good, Sybil might pretty soon turn up, prayed that he might keep his mind steady and do for the best whatever he had to do. The mist opened in front of him in one of its sweeping unfoldings, and he was aware of figures moving in it, tall figures emerging and disappearing, and it covered them again, and again those cold fingers closed round his own. Mr. Coningsby said, in a voice that shook despite his efforts, “Who are you?” The fingers warmed suddenly to his, and became a grasp; a voice in answer to his exclaimed, “Hallo, father!” and he realized that it was Ralph’s, though he would have sworn that the touch hadn’t been Ralph’s when it first caught him. But he must have been mistaken. He said in enormous relief: “Hallo, my boy! Glad to find you.”

“I’m damned glad,” Ralph answered, and his head appeared close to his father’s. “You’re solid, anyhow.”

“Whereabouts are we?” Mr. Coningsby asked.

“Where we were, I suppose,” Ralph said. “By that doorway into the study or whatever it was. I’ve not done much moving since, I can tell you. Funny business this.”

“It’s a wicked and dangerous business,” Mr. Coningsby cried out. “I’m looking for Nancy. That fiend’s left her alone, after trying to kill me.”

“What fiend?” Ralph asked, even more bewildered. “Who’s been trying to kill you?”

“That devil’s bastard Henry,” Mr. Coningsby said, unwontedly moved as he came to speak of it. “He said so. He said he raised the storm so as to kill me.”

“Henry!” Ralph exclaimed. “Raised a storm. But I mean — O, come, a storm!”

“He said so,” Mr. Coningsby repeated. “And he’s left Nancy in that room there with that gibbering hag of an aunt of his. Come on with me; we’ve got to get her out.”

“I see,” said Ralph. “Yes; O, well, let’s. I don’t mind anything so long as it’s firm. But raised a storm, you know! He must be a bit touched. I always thought he was a trifle gibbery himself.”

“O, everyone’s mad in this damned house,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I suppose we’re going right?”

“Well, I can’t see much,” Ralph answered, “but perhaps we are. I mean — if we’re not we shall find out. What’s that?”

They had both bumped into something. Mr. Coningsby, his language becoming less restrained every time he spoke, cursed and felt for it. But it was Ralph’s less maddened brain which found the explanation. “It’s the table,” he said suddenly. “The big table we saw from the doorway.”

“Then we’d better get round it,” Mr. Coningsby said. “The room where those gargoyles are is on the other side. I wish I could smash every one of them into fragments and cram them down his gulping throat.”

Hand still in hand, they groped round the table, and, when they judged they were almost opposite the inner door, struck out towards it. After two or three cautious steps, “It’s getting thinner,” Mr. Coningsby said.

Ralph was more doubtful, but, dutifully encouraging, he had just answered, “Perhaps you’re right,” when he was startled by his father nearly falling. Mr. Coningsby’s raised foot had come down on something that jerked and heaved under it. He cried out, staggered, recovered himself, and came to a halt as the thing rose in their pathway. It was in the shape of a man; it was a man; it was the fellow that had been with the witch; it was Stephen. He must have been lying across the threshold of the inner room. He looked at them with dull hostility.

“Get back,” he said. “You can’t come here. She’s there.”

“She is, is she?” Mr. Coningsby said. “Here, Ralph, move him.”

Ralph started to obey. He put a hand on Stephen and began to say, “Look here, you must let us by,” when Stephen leapt at him, and the two were locked in a wild struggle. Mr. Coningsby just avoided their first collision, and slipped past them as they swayed. Both of them, clutching and wrestling, went, under the impulse of Stephen’s rush, back into the outer room; all the emotions of fear and anger that had been restrained in their separate solitudes now broke into activity through the means of that hostile embrace. In the mysterious liquefaction of everything which had distressed Ralph, in the outbreak of the mysteries of the vagrant goddess which had terrified Stephen, each of them found something recognizable, natural, and human, and attacked it. The beings who possessed the cloud were veiled by it from both of them; like primeval men of undeveloped capacities, they strove with whatever was near. So had dim tribe battled with tribe — and earlier yet, before tribes were, before the beasts that grew into tribes, when the stuff that is the origin of all of us had brought forth only half-conscious shapes, such struggles had gone on. The nature of the battles of all the world was in them; to pass or not to pass — neither knowing clearly why, except that great command intensely swayed their spirits — was the centre of their conflicting wills. The gateway was taboo, for the goddess had entered; mystical age, nourishing wisdom, had gone into the sanctuary and must be inviolate. The gateway must be forced, for kinship was in danger; mystical womanhood, unprotected helplessness, was abandoned within and must be saved. Religion had commanded, and the household: the unknowing champions of either domination panted and fought in the outer courts of the mystery. The mist rolled into and over them; it possessed and maddened them. Life strove with life, and life poured itself into them to maintain the struggle. In such unseeing obedience, at that very moment, in the wider world, armies poured to battle, for causes as obscurely known. They battered and struck; they had no hope but destruction and no place but war. Ignorant of all but simple laws, they closed and broke and struck and closed again, and the strength of earth fought in them for mastery.

But of that manifestation of primitive violence Mr. Coningsby saw nothing: he had glimpsed the inner doorway and went hurriedly through it. Within, all was clear: clear so that he could know, unknowing, another mystery of mankind. For there, in the room with the dark hangings, through or in which had appeared to the initiate the vision. of the painted world, he saw the solemn intention of sacrifice, the attempted immolation of the victim to the god. Fate had fallen on deity, and only by bursting the doors of human life could deity be relieved. Humanity, caught up into dooms and agonies greater even than its own, was madly attempting to relieve them, and itself with them. Over the golden altar of blood the body of the girl lay stretched; on one side the hierophant clutched her wrist and tore at the mystery of the hand, which means so much in its gentle and terrible power; and on the altar itself, as if some god had descended to aid and quicken the sacrifice, the cat lay crouched in a beautiful and horrible suspense before its spring. As far as the struggling bodies without from the holy striving of joyous imaginations, so far within was the grotesque group from the sacred and necessary offering which (the testimony of the myths declares) releases, after some spiritual manner, the energies of the gods. But it was not wholly alien; and that which is common to all was the purpose of death.

Mr. Coningsby, as he broke into the charmed circle, saw the priestess, the cat, and the body of the sacrifice. It was on the last that his attention was concentrated, and he cried out in a voice rather of objection than of protest, but that was the result of fifty years of objection to life rather than of protest against it. He ran forward, grabbed the cat, lifted it, and flung it with violence at the doorway, much as Stephen had flung him away not long before. Joanna screeched at him, and he swore back at her. Dominant for the first time in his life, moved for the first time by those two great virtues, strength and justice, he commanded her, and for a moment she flinched. She was distracted from the hand she held by the hand that gripped her shoulder — before its owner had time to realize how offensive to his normal habits such a grip was. Nancy at the same moment twisted her wrist and jerked her own scratched hand away, standing once more upright on the other side of the table. Mr. Coningsby ran round the table to her. She put her arm round him and realized suddenly how much she owed to him — owed because she was a blundering servant of Love to this other blundering servant of Love, owed from her struggling goodwill to his struggling goodwill: and how full of goodwill his labouring spirit was. He was a companion upon the Way, and how difficult she had made the Way to him! She hugged his arm, not so much in gratitude for this single service as in remorse for her impatient past.

“0, thank you, darling,” she said. “You did come just at the right time.”

“Are you all right?” Mr. Coningsby said. “Are you all right? Has she hurt you? What was she doing?”

“She was looking for something,” Nancy said, “and she thought I’d got it. But I haven’t. If I only knew exactly what it was! Perhaps Aunt Sybil could find out if we could get them together. Ask her to come downstairs, won’t you, father?”

“I’ll ask her to come downstairs,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I’ll ask her to come down into the cellars, and I’ll ask her if she minds the doors being locked on her, and if she’d very much mind if we tied her up for the dancing, raving monstrosity of ugly hell that she is. Looking for something!”

At any rate, Nancy thought, that would give them a chance of finding Sybil on the way, and perhaps something more satisfactory than cellars would open. She couldn’t feel, for all her smarting hand, that locking Joanna in a cellar would do any real good. Nothing but giving Joanna what she wanted or getting Joanna to change her wants would be any real good. She pressed her hand to her heart; it was smarting dreadfully; the blood stood along the scratches. She didn’t want to show it in case her father became more annoyed with Joanna, but the sooner she could find Henry or (if needs must) bathe it herself the better. She began gently to edge Mr. Coningsby round the table. She said, “Let’s go with her at least. I’m sure Aunt Sybil could help. She knows what the lost thing is.”

Mr. Coningsby felt a shock of truth. Sybil did seem to know — Sybil had quietened this old hag — the lost thing — he took an automatic step or two forward. Joanna had already retreated a little, and was darting angry eyes round the room. She went back yet farther, and, as Nancy also moved, the golden cloud which hung behind the old woman rolled back, disclosing on the ground at her feet the paintings of the Tarots which had fallen from the hands of the lovers that evening. They lay there, throbbing and vibrating. With a scream of rage and delight she dropped to her knees and scraped them together in her hands.

“What —” Mr. Coningsby began, surprised, and ended in a different voice. “Are those my cards? What under heaven are my cards doing there?” He rushed round the table, and Nancy ran with him. But they were too late. Joanna was on her feet again, had turned, was running off into the mist, clutching the paintings. The other two ran also, and, as if their movement was itself a wind, the mist rolled back from before them, driven to either side and about their feet and floating over their heads. But, as Joanna ran, her hands fingered the cards, and she cried out in ecstasy.

They broke into the outer room, and at the sound of that shrill rapturous voice the two combatants ceased to struggle. She was upon them, and both of them, startled at the coming of such a hierophant in such exaltation, released the other and fell back. But Stephen sent a word to her, and she answered: “I’m finding him, I’m finding him. I’ll burn them first and then he’ll come. He’ll come in the fire: the fire is for Horus, Horus in the fire.”

She was by him and out of the room, and still she worked the magic in her hands, and by now, so swift and effective was her insanity, she had separated the suit of the swords from the rest, and was setting them in some strange order. She made of them a mass of little pointed triangles, three living symbols to each triangle, and the King of the Swords, whose weapon quivered and glowed as if in flame, she thrust on top of them all, and laid her own hand over it, warming it into life. And as she came into the longer corridor, already the sparks went about her, and she was calling, “Little one, little one! I’m coming. They shan’t hurt you any more. I’ll drive them away — your mother’ll save you. I can hear you — I’m coming.”

Behind her those who pressed were parted. At the door of the outer room Mr. Coningsby’s strength went from him. He staggered, and would have fallen had not Nancy held him, and Ralph, by whom they paused, sprang to her help. Nancy gave her brother one swift, delightful smile and exclaimed to him, “Look after him, there’s a dear. I must go.”

“Right ho!” Ralph said, and took his father’s arm as Nancy released it. Stephen uncertainly looked at them, then he left them and followed Nancy. She came into the longer corridor and saw before her Henry leaning on the balustrade at the top of the stairs. Joanna, checking as she went, had lifted the swords that were beginning to shoot from between her hands in little flames, and was thrusting them continually forward towards him in sharp spasms of motion. And about them the cloud gathered into shapes and forms, and through all the translucent house Nancy was aware of golden figures unceasingly intertwining in the steps of the fatal dance.

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