The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Sixteen

“Sun, Stand Thou Still Upon Gibeon”

Sybil, with a great deal of difficulty, although it did not occur to her to call it that, had managed to get Aaron downstairs and into the drawing-room. She had wanted him to be helped to his bedroom, but this he had altogether refused. He wouldn’t go up those stairs; he wouldn’t go back into the thicker mist; he would go down; he would get away if he could. She wasn’t to leave him — everyone else had left him — and they would be on him.

“They?” Sybil asked as she helped him cautiously along. “Splendid, Mr. Lee. You could get upstairs almost as well, you know. Easier, in fact. No, all right — if you’d rather. They?”

“They,” Aaron babbled. “They’re all round us. They always are, but we shall see them. I daren’t see them. I daren’t. I can’t see anything: it’s too bright.”

“It is very bright,” Sybil said. “If it wasn’t so late, I should think the sun was shining. But I never heard of the sun shining at ten o’clock on Christmas night. Gently; that’s perfect.”

“The sun!” Aaron said. “The sun’s gone out for ever; we’re all blind. Lame and blind, so that we can’t escape them.”

Sybil smiled at him. “Well, then,” she said, “I wouldn’t worry about escaping. Leave that to Nancy and Henry, unless they’re sensible enough not to worry either. I wasn’t at their age. I tried to insist on escaping; fortunately, I didn’t. That’s the bottom.”

“How can you tell?” Aaron exclaimed. “Can you see? Can you see through the mist and the snow?”

“Fairly well,” Sybil said. “I wonder if Amabel — Amabel, could you give Mr. Lee your arm on the other side?”

The words reached Amabel where she was clasped with her companions. They reached her out of the bright cloud; she raised her head, felt it against her eyes, and promptly shut them again. Sybil looking across the hall at them — the hall that in this curiously golden-tinted snow looked more lovely, though more ruinous, than she had thought any mortal thing could look — considered a moment, and then in a firmer voice called again, “Amabel!” Snowstorms were all very well, but it was silly to get into a state of crouching hysterics over a snowstorm; Amabel’s immediate job was to be of use. Normally one wouldn’t order other people’s servants about, and she said to Aaron between two calls: “Will you forgive me, Mr. Lee? Perhaps if you called her . . .?”

Aaron, however, it was clear, had no notion of doing anything of the sort; the words didn’t seem to mean anything to him. Sybil called for the third time, with an imperious certainty: “Amabel! Will you come here?”

Amabel heard the voice and looked up again. In the awful vagueness of the hall, tumultuous with cloud and storm, she saw figures moving. A mingled sense of her duty and of wild adventure filled her. She released the cook and the other maid; she said, faintly but definitely, “I’m coming.”

“Well, come, then,” Sybil said, still slightly imperious. “My dear girl, do hurry. I know it’s very unusual, but we may as well be useful.”

Amabel dashed through the mist, terrified but exultant. It swirled round her; it carried her along; she was swept, deliriously panting, to the side of the strange lady who walked in the cloud as others did by day, and laughed at the storm as others did at spring, and closed doors that the whole power of the world dashed open, and carried an old man safely through chaos to —

“Where to, madam?” she asked, an attentive executant once more.

Serenely Miss Coningsby smiled at her — a smile that Amabel felt to be even brighter than the golden glow about them: so much brighter that for a moment the glow was only the reflection of the smile.

“How dear of you!” Miss Coningsby said. “So — yes. I thought the drawing-room. You and my nephew made rather a mess of the drawing-room, didn’t you?”

Amabel smiled back, a thing she didn’t much believe in doing as a rule, having been for some months with a lady who held that if you smiled at your servants they would do everything for you, and also held that you had a right to see that they did. The company proceeded slowly to the drawing-room, and Aaron was made as comfortable as possible on a divan. Sybil, kneeling by him, bared his ankle and looked at it.

“It doesn’t,” she said, “seem very bad.” She laid her hand over it, thinking how charming Aaron Lee’s courtesy had been, very willing to be courteous in her turn. He looked up at her and met her eyes, and his anxious babblings stopped.

Her hand closed round the ankle; her mind went inwards into the consciousness of the Power which contained them both; she loved it and adored it: with her own thought of Aaron in his immediate need, his fear, his pain, she adored. Her own ankle ached and throbbed in sympathy, not the sympathy of an easy proffer of mild regret, but that of a life habituated to such intercession. She interceded; she in him and he in her, they grew acquainted; the republican element of all created things welled up in them both. Their eyes exchanged news. She throbbed for an instant not with pain but with fear as his own fear passed through her being. It did but pass through; it was dispelled within her, dying away in the unnourishing atmosphere of her soul, and with the fear went the pain. Her hand had fastened on him; she smiled at him, and then with the passing of that smile before her recovered serenity her hand was released. She sank back on to her heels, and said, her voice full of a deep delight: “O, no, not very bad.”

Of what exactly she spoke she hardly knew, but he answered her in the greater sense. “Let them come then,” he said. “I was a fool ever to think I knew.”

“Why, no,” she said. “Only perhaps you sprained your ankle — hurrying.”

Negligent of his supposed hurt, he put his feet to the floor and stood up; then, as if from the weight he put on them, he flinched. “But the cloud! the living cloud!” he cried. “And Joanna’s there!”

She came, in a complex movement of harmony, to her feet. “Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “Joanna might perhaps be a little carried away. Ought we to go and see if we can find her?”

“Must we find her?” he said irresolutely. “Let her fight them if she wants to. Must we go back into the mist?”

“What is this mist you see?” Sybil asked. “Why do you call it a living cloud?”

“It’s the cloud from which the images were first made,” he said, almost whispering. “It hides in everything; it’s the golden hands that shape us and our lives. It’s death to see them; no one can bear it.”

“Are our hands so different?” Sybil said.

“So many degrees less,” he answered, “in life and power. There have been those whose palms were touched, when they were born, by figures leaning over the cradles: some by one and some by another.” His words came faster, as if he would keep her where she stood, keep her by his talk in forgetfulness of the dangers without. “Napoleon . . . Caesar. There was one who came to Olympias on the night when Alexander was conceived, and to the mother of Samson. Great priests — the hierophant touched their hands when they were tiny. Death sometimes. Joanna’s child — and the innocents of Bethlehem. And others that we can’t see, others beyond the seventy-eight degrees.”

“Yet all this time,” Sybil said, “Joanna cries for her child.”

He caught her arm. “Leave her alone,” he cried. “Perhaps she’ll turn the magic against the princes, then she’ll die, she’ll be blasted. Keep your hands from her.”

“Why, she blessed me once with hers,” Sybil answered. “And I can’t see this mist of yours, though I agree there’s a new loveliness in things. Let’s go.”

“If you enter the cloud, you’ll never come out,” he cried again. “The hands’ll drag you down, the hands of the beginning.”

“Let’s go and see,” she said. “There are the others, and there’s always a way through all mists.” She looked at Amabel, who was listening in puzzled and fearful silence. “Thank you, my dear,” she said. “Shall we go back now?”

She moved forward and out into the hall. Aaron, half willing, half-unwilling, followed her, hobbling either from his hurt or his fear, if indeed the two were separate. Amabel, in the mere growing certainty that to be near Miss Coningsby was to be as near safety as possible, followed; but she took care to follow her master. Somehow she didn’t think Miss Coningsby, if she should look round, would like to see her pushing on out of her place. So, biting her lips a trifle nervously, and as nervously settling her sleeves at her wrists, she controlled her impulse to thrust right up against the strange lady and contented herself with keeping her eyes fixed on the tall assured figure which passed through the drawing-room door and came out among . . .

Among the powers and princes of the dance. For Amabel, as she in turn came into the hall, had the most bewildering vision of a multitude of invaders. She couldn’t at once grasp it, but as she gazed and panted she saw that the whole house had changed. The walls, the stairs, the doors, the ceiling, were all alive. They were formed — all that she could see of them through snow and mist — of innumerable shapes, continuously shifting, sliding over and between each other. They were in masses of colour — black mostly, she seemed to see, but with ripples of grey and silver and fiery-red passing over them. Dark pillars of earth stood in the walls, and through them burning swords pierced, and huge old cups of pouring waters were emptied, and grey clubs were beaten. She screamed once despairingly, and Miss Coningsby looked round over her shoulder. But the very movement, though in a way reassuring, was immediately more terrifying; for it seemed to divide even that solitary figure of comfort, and there were two shapes before her: one was the strange lady and one was a man, in a great white cloak and a golden helmet with a crown round it. As if treading a dance together, the two went forward — and the king or emperor or whatever he was also looked back over his shoulder. Amabel was near fainting, but as she met the awful eyes that shone at her she was gathered together and strengthened. She had her duty to do, she reminded herself; if the storm stopped, they’d want the hall tidied up. She must be there in case the hall wanted tidying up. She forgot, in that necessity, the eyes that called to her, and the lord of secular labour vanished from her sight, for she was herself part of the hierarchy that is he. She stood still, concentrated on that thought: “If the storm stops, they’ll want the hall tidied up — tidied up — tidied.” She wished spasmodically that those sudden shining figures wouldn’t come between her and Miss Coningsby, and determined, early in the New Year, to have her eyes seen to. Meanwhile, if the storm stopped . . .

High above them, at the top of the stairs, Nancy looked down. She saw below her Sybil standing in the middle of the hall: she saw the storm in its elemental shapes of wind and water dancing about her. The sight kept her gaze momentarily even from Joanna in front of her, and in that moment she saw Sybil imperiously put out her left hand.

She remembered that movement: once, not so long ago, her father had come home tired and with a bad chill, and she and Ralph had been making rather a row dancing to the gramophone or something — she remembered the exact gesture with which Sybil had flung a hand out towards them while going on some errand. She hadn’t needed to speak; the hand had somehow tossed them into subjection. Ralph and she had rather awkwardly broken off and begun chatting — quite quietly chatting — instead. Nancy smiled as the memory touched her in the recognition of the gesture, and smiled again to see the flagging of the white whirlwind. Sybil stood there, one hand flung out, looking up, and Nancy’s eyes went back to the two in front of her, to Henry and Joanna facing each other now.

They went back to meet Henry’s. He was looking past Joanna and the burning threat which was leaping and darting from the agile, hateful hands; he was looking, as he had never looked before, at the girl who had come again from among the mystery of the images. She looked back at him and laughed, and beckoned him by throwing out her hands towards him; and in simultaneous movement both she and Henry took a few running steps and came together on Joanna’s left.

“You’re safe,” he said abruptly, holding her.

“And you, darling?” she breathed anxiously.

“I?” he said. “O, yes, I’m safe;” and then, as if realizing the new danger. “But run, run quickly; she’s got the magic in her hands and she may do anything. Get away, dearest and best; leave me to deal with her.”

“You do it so well, don’t you, sweetheart?” she mocked. “O darling, you never ought to be let deal with anyone but me.”

The throbbing voice caught him away from the danger near them. He said: “And you then?”

“Ah! me,” she said, “that was given to you alone: that’s your only gift. Do you want more?”

“Haven’t you that also — you who have all the rest?” he said.

She answered, smiling, “If you give it me. But don’t give it me too soon. Love isn’t all that easy — even with you. Darling, your aunt’s very angry: let’s talk to her together.”

Obedient to her initiative, he turned with her. Between them and the top of the stairs the half-naked creature stood, sparks flying off from those spasmodically thrusting hands and little flames breaking from them. The paintings between those hands were thrusting of their own volition as nights before they had slid and rubbed in Nancy’s. But the old woman was not facing them; she did not seem even to have noticed Henry’s movement. She glared round her, unseeing, or rather seeing everywhere hostility; she cried out accusing and cursing the whole world of things that had caught away her victim, who was also the casket of the hidden god, and had left her but this solitary weapon of magical fire. At the top of that height, between the lovers on one side and Sybil below her on the other, she broke into a paroxysm of despair and desire, supplicating and reassuring the lost child, denouncing the enemies that held him apart. Between the young lovers hand in hand on one side, and on the other the solitary figure of Sybil, whose hand was still stretched out over shapes that might, as Nancy saw them, have been blown heaps of snow or might have been such forms as had come rioting up from the centre of the storm but were now still and crouching — between those reconciled minds the distracted voice of Joanna pealed on. Nancy had meant to speak, to try to soothe or satisfy, but she dared not. If she did, if she asked and was answered, it would not be an answer that she could comprehend. Witches at the stake, with the fire already about them, might have been shrieking so, with as little chance that the stricken hearers would know the names they adjured. But it was not of witches that Nancy thought, for all the screams and the flames; she heard a more human cry. She heard the wail that rang through the curses, and it was a wail that went up from the depths of the world.

Her hand clasped Henry’s passionately, for the sound of that universal distress terrified her young soul. On the edge of a descent an antique misery was poised, and from the descent, from the house, from the earth, misery beyond telling lamented and complained — to men who could not aid, to gods who made no signs, for it was the gods themselves that had been lost. “Ah! ah! ah!”— something final was gone, something beyond description precious: “Ah! all! ah!”— the little child was dead. They were weeping for it everywhere, as they had been always. She who stood there screamed and stabbed for torment of hate and loss, and from marshes and cities all desire that had not learnt its own futility rose and swelled in hers. The litany of anguish poured out as if it were the sound of the earth itself rushing through space, and comfortless for ever the spinning globe swept on, turning upon itself, crying to itself; and space was the echo of its lament, and time was the measure of its sobs. But more than mere awe of such unavailing grief and desire awoke in Nancy then: cold at her heart, a personal fear touched her and stayed. It was a fear of that actual moment, but futurity lived in it. One hand was in Henry’s, but the other was torn by Joanna’s nails. Joanna stood in the way; beyond her the way led on to Sybil. She could see Sybil — ever so far off, in that descent upon which the great stairs opened. But Joanna stood in her way, overarching the way, pouring out her voice like the way itself. She wanted to go to Sybil, and that voice was in the way — O folly of cowardice! that voice was the way. Why didn’t Sybil move? Why didn’t Sybil come? Around her, before her, glimmering in the red glow that was uncertainly breaking from those ever-busy hands, she saw the mighty golden shapes looming. They were looming out of the cloud which was at once their background and yet they. It was difficult to see, but she caught the form of the designs she had studied — the one and twenty revelations of the Greater Trumps. The red glow leapt and faded; but the crown of the Emperor, but the front of the sphinx-drawn Chariot, but the stretched sickle of the image of Death, but the sandals of the two children playing together under an unshaped sun, themselves shedding the light by which they played, but the girdle of the woman who danced alone — all these and other fragmentary visions struck on her straining eyes. The glow faded; her dazzled eyes refused to see more distinction in those walls of mist. But as she shut them she heard Sybil call, and then she heard a sudden rush close by her. She opened her eyes hastily, in time to see — of all mad things — the cat that had crouched on the altar dash down the stairs towards Sybil. That wild and alien thing which Sybil had found in the magical storm, which had followed Joanna to her room and led her thence to the room of the images, which had almost made a way for the snow to break into the house, which had dashed from snow to mist and from mist to snow as if it were the living secret of uncontrolled power, which had instinctively assisted at the attempted sacrifice to uncontrolled desire, itself unshaping since lacking the instruments of shape, now rushed to the foot of the stairs, and absurdly checked itself, and then with high feline grace stepped across the hall to Sybil’s feet.

Sybil dropped her hand towards it and dropped it a soft word; it jumped delicately towards her hand and played round her foot, and jumped again. As it rushed, as it stayed, Joanna’s cry also ceased. The power of it was withdrawn; all power, all utterance, was withdrawn. The unexpected silence was more awful than even the wailing, for it was not a silence of relief but of impotence. The cry of the world was choked; the ball, tossed from the juggler’s hand, revolved in unspoken anguish. The mad-woman reeled once, as if she had been struck on the mouth; then, recovering, turned darting eyes to Sybil in the hall below. Through the silence Sybil called to her: “The child’s found, Joanna; the child’s alive and lovely. All’s well; the child’s found.” Joanna tried to speak and could not. She shuffled towards the stair; she turned her pointing hands, bearing their fiery weapon, as if she herself carried the sword of the crowned chieftain of fire, downward towards that other confronting form. Sybil took a step forward, the cat leaping up against her, and called again: “He’s here. Come and adore.”

In a forced and horrible croak, as if speech broke through against commandment and against control, Joanna said: “It’s you all the time. I shall see him when you’re dead. When you’re dead and the world’s destroyed, I’ll see my desire.”

Amabel, crouching by the drawing-room door, saw the strange lady, her left hand rising and falling in a dance with the leaping cat, stretch out the right as if in invitation. The open palm, the curved fingers, the arching thumb, took on a reflection of the cloud that hung over all things: it seemed to Amabel that Miss Coningsby held out a golden hand towards the staircase down which Joanna was beginning to creep. The hand which had helped Lothair and comforted Nancy and healed Aaron, which had picked up the kitten and closed the door and controlled the storm, was stretched to gather in this last reverted madness of man. It lay there, very still, the centre of all things, the power and the glory, the palm glowing with a ruddy passion veiled by the aureate flesh — the hand of all martyrs, enduring; of all lovers, welcoming; of all rulers, summoning. And, as if indeed it summoned, the cloud of gold rushed down towards it, but it moved in shapes and figures, the hands of all the symbols stretched towards the hand that, being human, was so much more than symbol. Nancy and Henry from above beheld them, hands imperial and sacerdotal, single and joined, the working hands that built the Tower, the helpless hands that formed the Wheel, white hands stretching, from the snow, fiery hands thrusting from between Joanna’s that burned downwards and vanished, all activities rushing towards that repose through which activity beat in the blood that infused it. So the hand of the juggler had been stretched to cast and catch the tossed balls of existence; so the hand of the Fool had at last fulfilled the everlasting promise and yielded its secrets to the expected hour. The cloud swirled once around that open palm, as the intermingling shapes trod out a last circling measure, hiding all other forms, so that the hand itself was all that could be seen as the rapturous powers wheeled inwards to it. For an infinitesimal fraction of time the immortal dance stood still to receive the recollection of that ever-moving and never-broken repose of sovereign being. Then suddenly they were gone, and the cloud was gone, and everywhere, breaking from Sybil’s erect figure, shone a golden light, as of the fullness of the sun in his glory, expanding in a rich fruition. Over the snow spread and heaped around, over Aaron and the others by him, over the stairs and the landing and those who were on it, and so over and through the whole house, the light shone, exquisite and full of promise, radiant and full of perfection. The chaos of the hall was a marvel of new shape and colour; the faces of those who stood around were illumined from within. It was Christmas night, but in the sunlight, between Sybil and Joanna, seriously engrossed, two small strange children played. The mystery which that ancient seer had worked in the Greater Trumps had fulfilled itself, at that time and in that place, to so high a point of knowledge. Sybil stood there, and from her the sun of the Tarots ruled, and the holy children of the sun, the company of the blessed, were seen at least by some of the eyes that watched. For Amabel saw them and was ignorantly at peace; and Aaron saw them and was ashamed; and Nancy and Henry saw them, and Nancy laughed for mere joy of seeing, and when he heard it Henry felt his heart labour as it had never done before with the summons and the power; and Sybil saw them and adored, and saw beyond them, running down the stairs between herself and Nancy as if he were their union, and poised behind Joanna as if he supported and protected her, the vivid figure of the Fool. He had come from all sides at once, yet he was but one. All-reconciling and perfect, he was there, running down the stairs as he had run down the storm. And as he passed, receiving and bestowing light, Nancy, on an impulse, turned and kissed Henry — before the light should vanish, so that she might have done it, might have done it if in days to come she should ever find herself a part of that dreadful cry which had gone up from the world. But even in the kiss she felt her smarting hand throbbing an answer, an answer and an oath that years should see valiantly kept. When she looked back, the figure of the Fool was gone; she heard Joanna cry out in a natural voice, and she saw the children cease from their play and look up, and then Joanna ran down the rest of the stairs, and, as she reached the bottom, cried out once more as if in pain, and stumbled and fell.

The cry shook the golden light; it vanished. Amabel, gazing, saw Miss Coningsby in the hall and the old woman lying in a heap at the foot of the stairs, and before she had time to move she saw the other visitors coming flying down them. They came very swiftly, but as if they also came in order; the lovers first, still hand in hand, and after them Mr. Coningsby, still anxiously watching Nancy, and thinking as fast as he could that he must keep in touch with her, whatever happened. And after him again came Ralph and Stephen, distracted from their mutual hostility, but with all their strength ready and vigilant. The three great orders of grace and intellect and corporeal strength, in those immature servants of their separate degrees, gathered round the place where Sybil kneeled by Joanna, and the search within and the search without were joined.

Mr. Coningsby peered over Henry’s shoulder. “Has she collapsed?” he said hopefully.

Nancy kneeled down also, and Sybil’s hands and hers were busy with easing and helping. Amabel, released at last from what she felt must have been a deliciously thrilling nightmare, ran of her own accord to get some water. Aaron came over to the rest. Joanna opened her eyes, and they fell on Nancy. She looked, uncertainly and then eagerly, at the grave young face bending over her, then a great gladness shone in her own. She put out a trembling hand, and Nancy clasped it. She murmured something, and Nancy in similar indistinguishable words answered. Sybil stood up, and Mr. Coningsby edged round to her.

“What’s she doing?” he asked, not quite knowing why he was speaking in a whisper. “Is she apologizing or what?”

Sybil did not immediately answer. She looked at him with a smile; then with the same smile she looked round the hall, and her eyes lingered on a little heap that lay where she had been standing just before, a little heap of golden dust, strewn with charred and flimsy scraps, so light that already one or two were floating away in the mere stir of the air. The presentation of the dance was for ever done. She looked at them tenderly; then she turned back to her brother, and said, “She has found her child.”

“Has she?” Mr. Coningsby said. “Where?” And he also looked round the hall, as if he suspected that Joanna’s child was likely to be a fresh nuisance.

“She thinks Nancy is her child,” Sybil said.

Mr. Coningsby stared, tried to grasp it, moved a little, was gently pushed out of the way by Amabel with an “Excuse me, sir,” glowered after her, and said: “Nancy?”

“She thinks so,” Sybil answered.

“But . . . but, I mean . . . what about the age?” her brother protested. “She can’t think a girl of twenty — forty, perhaps, if she thought she’d grown up, or four if she hadn’t. But not twenty.”

“She’s looking at something immortal,” Sybil said. “Age . . . ” She delicately shrugged it away.

Mr. Coningsby stared at her, and then realized that he was a little frightened of her, though he couldn’t think why. “But,” he began again, and suddenly remembered a single simple fact, “but I thought her child was a boy. I’m sure someone told me it was a boy. She doesn’t think Nancy’s a boy, does she? Don’t you mean Henry?”

“No,” Sybil said, “I mean Nancy. I don’t think it much matters about girl or boy. She thought her child was Messias.”

“O!” Mr. Coningsby said. “And is Nancy Messias?”

“Near enough,” Sybil answered. “There’ll be pain and heart-burning yet, but, for the moment, near enough.”

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