The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Three

The Shuffling of the Cards

The Coningsbys usually went to Eastbourne for Christmas. The habit had been begun because Mr. Coningsby had discovered that he preferred hotel life for those few days to having his own house treated as an hotel. Groups of young people would arrive at any hour of day or night, and Nancy or Ralph, if in, would leap up and rush to welcome them or, if not in, would arrive soon after, inquiring for friends who had already disappeared. Mr. Coningsby disapproved strongly, but for once found himself helpless, so sudden was the rush; he therefore preferred to be generous and give everyone a thorough change. It was never quite clear whether he regarded this as on his sister’s account chiefly or on his children’s. She was supposed to need it, but they were supposed to enjoy it, and so after the first year they all went back each Christmas to the same hotel, and Mr. Coningsby put up with playing bridge and occasionally observing the revels and discussing civilization with other gentlemen of similar good nature.

It annoyed him slightly at times that Sybil never seemed quite grateful enough for the mere change — as change. Even the profound content in which she normally seemed to have her being —“sluggish, sluggish,” Mr. Coningsby said to himself when he thought of it, and walked a little more briskly — even that repose must surely be all the pleasanter for a change. There were always some nice women about for her to talk to. Of course, she was pleased to go — but not sufficiently pleased to gratify Mr. Coningsby: he was maddened by that continuous equable delight. She enjoyed everything — and he, he enjoyed nothing.

But this year things were different — had got, or anyhow were going, to be different. It had begun with Ralph, who, rather confusedly, had intimated that he was going to have a still more thorough change by going off altogether with some friend of his whose people lived somewhere near Lewes. Mr. Coningsby had not said much, or did not seem to himself to have done so, but he had made it clear that he disliked such secession from the family life. To summer holidays spent with friends he had (he hoped) never objected, but Christmas was different. Christmas was, in fact, the time when Mr. Coningsby most nearly realized the passage of time and the approach of age and death. For Christmas every year had been marked by small but definite changes, through his own childhood, his youth, his marriage, his children’s infancy and childhood, and now there were only two possibilities of change — the coming of a third generation or the stopping of Christmas. Each year that Mr. Coningsby succeeded in keeping Nancy and Ralph by him for Christmas postponed either unwelcome change, and enabled him to enter the New Year with the pretence that it was merely the Old Year beginning over again. But this year his friend’s death had already shaken him, and if he and Sybil and Nancy — an engaged Nancy — were to be without Ralph, the threat of an inevitable solitude would loom very near. There would be a gap, and he had nothing with which to fill the gap or to meet what might come through it; nothing except the fact that he was a Warden in Lunacy, and had all the privileges of a Warden — such as going in to dinner before the elder sons of younger sons of peers. He did not know where, years before, he had picked up that bit of absurd knowledge, in what odd table of precedence, but he knew it was so, and had even mentioned it once to Sybil. But all the elder sons of younger sons of peers whose spectres he could crowd into that gap did not seem to fill it. There was an emptiness brought to mind, and only brought to mind, for it was always there, though he forgot it. He filled it with his office, his occupation, his family, his house, his friends, his politics, his food, his sleep, but sometimes the emptiness was too big to be filled thus, and sometimes it rolled up on him, along the street when he left the home in the morning, blowing in at evening through the open window or creeping up outside when it was shut, or even sometimes looking ridiculously at him in the unmeaning headlines of his morning paper. “Prime Minister,” he would read, “Announces Fresh Oil Legislation”— and the words would be for one second all separate and meaningless —“Prime Minister”— what was a Prime Minister? Blur, blot, nothingness, and then again the breakfast-table and The Times and Sybil.

Ralph’s announced defection therefore induced him unconsciously to desire to make a change for himself, and induced him again to meet more equably than he otherwise might have done Nancy’s tentative hints about the possibility of the rest of them going to Henry’s grandfather. It didn’t strike him as being a very attractive suggestion for himself, but it offered him every chance of having Nancy and Henry as well as Ralph to blame for his probable discomfort or boredom or gloom, and therefore of lessening a concentration on Ralph, Ralph’s desertion, change, age — and the other thing. Sybil, when he consulted her, was happy to find him already half-reconciled to the proposal.

“I’m afraid it’ll be very dull for you,” he said.

“O, I don’t think so,” she answered. “It’ll have to be very dull indeed if it is.”

“And of course we don’t know what the grandfather’s like,” he added.

“He’s presumably human,” Sybil said, “so he’ll be interesting somehow.”

“Really, Sybil,” Mr. Coningsby answered, almost crossly, “you do say the most ridiculous things. As if everybody was interesting.”

“Well, I think everybody is,” Sybil protested, “and things apart from their bodies we don’t know, do we? And considering what funny, lovely things bodies are, I’m not especially anxious to leave off knowing them.”

Her brother kept the conversation straight. “I gather that he’s old but quite active still, not bed-ridden or anything.”

“Then we shan’t be expected to sit with him,” Sybil said happily, “and, as Nancy and Henry certainly wouldn’t want to, you and I will be much freer.”

“If I thought I was expected to sit with a senile old man —” Mr. Coningsby said in alarm, “but Henry implied that he’d got all his faculties. Have you heard anything?”

“Good heavens, no!” said Sybil, and, being in what her brother called one of her perverse moods, added, “I love that phrase.”

“What phrase?” Mr. Coningsby asked, having missed anything particular.

“Good heavens,” Sybil repeated, separating the words. “It says everything almost, doesn’t it? I don’t like to say ‘Good God’ too often; people so often misunderstand.”

“Sometimes you talk exactly in Nancy’s irresponsible way, Sybil,” her brother complained. “I don’t see any sense in it. Why should one want to say ‘Good God’?”

“Well, there isn’t really much else to say, is there?” Sybil asked, and added hastily, “No, my dear, I’m sorry, I was only —” She hesitated for a word.

“I know you were,” Mr. Coningsby said, as if she had found it, “but I don’t think jokes of that kind are in the best of taste. It’s possible to be humorous without being profane.”

“I beg your pardon, Lothair,” Sybil said meekly. She tried her best not to call her brother “Lothair”, because that was one of the things which seemed to him to be profane without being humorous. But it was pain and grief to her; there wasn’t all that time to enjoy everything in life as it should be enjoyed, and the two of them could have enjoyed that ridiculous name so much better together. However, since she loved him, she tried not to force the good God’s richness of wonder too much on his attention, and so she went on hastily, “Nancy’s looking forward to it so much.”

“At her age,” Mr. Coningsby remarked, “one naturally looks forward.”

“And at ours,” Sybil said, “when there isn’t the time there isn’t the necessity: the present’s so entirely satisfactory.”

Mr. Coningsby just stopped himself saying, “Good God,” with quite a different intonation. He waited a minute or two and said, “You know Henry’s offered to take us down in his car?”

“Nice of him,” Sybil answered, and allowed herself to become involved in a discussion of what her brother would or would not take: at the end of which he suddenly said, “O, and by the way, you might look through those packs of cards and put in a few of the most interesting — and the catalogue — especially the set we were looking at the other evening. Nancy asked me; it seems there are some others down there, and Henry and she want to compare them. A regular gipsy taste! But if it amuses them . . . He’s promised to show her some tricks.”

“Then I hope,” Miss Coningsby said, “that Nancy won’t try to show them to us before she’s practised them. Not that I mind being surprised in an unintentional way, but it’d show a state of greater sanctity on her part.”

“Sanctity!” Mr. Coningsby uttered derisively. “Nancy’s not very near sanctity.”

“My dear, she’s in love,” his sister exclaimed.

“And what’s that got to do with sanctity?” Mr. Coningsby asked triumphantly, and enjoyed the silence to which Sybil sometimes found herself driven. Anyone who didn’t realize the necessary connexion between love and sanctity left her incapable of explanation.

“Tricks” was hardly the word which Nancy would have used that same evening, though it was one which Henry himself had used to her a week or so before. It wanted still some ten days to Christmas, and in the fortnight that had elapsed since the examination of the late Mr. Duncannon’s legacy the subject of the cards had cropped up several times between the two young people. Nancy had the natural, alert interest of youth, as Sybil had the — perhaps supernatural — vivid interest of age, and Henry’s occasional rather mysterious remarks had provoked it still more. She had, in fact, examined the cards by herself, and reread the entry in the catalogue, and looked up “Tarot” in the encyclopaedia without being much more advanced. As she sat now coiled in front of the dining-room fire, playing gently with her lover’s fingers, at once stirred and soothed by the contact, she suddenly twisted round to face him in the deep chair to her right.

“But, Henry, dearest, what is it you mean?” she said. “You keep on talking of these cards as if they were important.”

“So they are,” Henry answered. “Exactly how important depends on you, perhaps.”

Nancy sat up on her heels. “Henry,” she said, “are you teasing me or are you not? If you are, you’re not human at all.”

“Then you don’t know what you’d miss,” Henry said.

Nancy threw out her arms. “O wretched me!” she cried dramatically. “Henry, if I pretend I don’t want to know, are you sure you’ll play up? You won’t take a mean advantage, will you?”

“If you really don’t want to know,” he told her, “I certainly won’t tell you. That’s the whole point. Do you really want to know?”

“Have I bared my heart to have it mistrusted?” she said. “Must I pine away in an hour or so to persuade you? Or will it do if I sob myself to sleep on the spot? As I used not to say when we did Julius Caesar at school, if you don’t tell me, ‘Portia is Brutus’s harlot, not his wife.’ What a nasty little cad and cat Portia was — to squeeze it out of him like that! But I swear I’ll give myself a wound ‘here in the thigh’ unless you do tell me, and bleed to death all over your beautiful trousers.”

He took her hand in his so strongly that her eyes changed to immediate gravity.

“If you want to know,” he said, “I will tell you what I can here; and the rest — there. If you can bear it.”

“Do as you will,” she answered seriously. “If it’s no joke, then try me and let me go if I fail. At that,” she added with a sudden smile, “I think I won’t fail.”

“Then bring the Tarot cards now, if you can,” he said. “But quietly. I don’t want the others to know.”

“They’re out — father and Ralph,” she answered. “I will go and get them,” and on the word was away from the room.

For the few minutes that elapsed before she returned he stood looking absently before him, so that he did not at once hear her entrance, and her eyes took him in, his frown, his concentrated gaze, the hand that made slight unpurposed movements by his side. As she looked, she herself unconsciously disposed herself to meet him, and she came across the room to him with something in her of preparation, as if, clear and splendid, she came to her bridal; nor did they smile as they met, though it was the first time in their mutual acquaintance that so natural a sweetness had been lacking. He took the cards from her, and then, laying his hand on her shoulder, lightly compelled her towards the large table in the middle of the room. Then he drew the cards from their case, which he threw carelessly from him to the floor, and began to separate them into five piles.

“Look,” he said, “these are the twenty-two cards — the twenty-one and the one which is nothing — that we looked at the other night. Those are the Greater Trumps, and there’s nothing to tell you about them now; they must wait till another time. But these others are the four suits, and you will see what we did not carefully look at then — they’re not the usual designs, not clubs and spades and hearts and diamonds, but staffs or sceptres, and swords and cups and coins — or deniers: those last are shaped sometimes as pentacles, but this is the better marking. And see — there are fourteen and not thirteen in each suit, for besides the Knave and Queen and King there is in these the Knight: so that here, for instance, are the Knave — or Esquire — of sceptres, and the Knight, Queen, and King of sceptres; and so with the swords, the cups, and the deniers. Look, here they are.”

She bent above them, watching, and after a moment he went on.

“Now these cards are the root and origin of all cards, and no one knows from where they came, for the tale is that they were first heard of among the gipsies in Spain in the thirteenth century. Some say they are older, and some even talk of Egypt, but that matters very little. It isn’t the time behind them, but the process in them, that’s important. There are many packs of Tarot cards, but the one original pack, which is this, has a secret behind it that I will show you on Christmas Eve. Because of that secret this pack, and this only, is a pack of great might.”

He paused again, and still she made no movement. He glanced at her hands resting on the edge of the table, and resumed.

“All things are held together by correspondence, image with image, movement with movement: without that there could be no relation and therefore no truth. It is our business — especially yours and mine — to take up the power of relation. Do you know what I mean?”

As she suddenly looked up at him, she almost smiled.

“Darling,” she murmured, “how couldn’t I know that? I didn’t need the cards to tell me. Ah, but go on: show me what it means in them.”

For another second he paused, arrested: it was as if she had immediately before her something which he sought far off. A little less certainly he again went on, his voice recovering itself almost immediately.

“There is in these suits a great relation to the four compacted elements of the created earth, and you shall find the truth of this now, if you choose, and if the tales told among my people and the things that were written down among them are true. This pack has been hidden from us for more than two centuries, and for all that time no one, I think, can have tried it till to-night. The latest tale we know of is that once, under Elizabeth, a strange ancestor of mine, who had fled to England from the authority of the King of Spain, raised the winds which blew the Armada northward past Scotland.”

Nancy wrinkled her forehead as he paused. “Do you mean,” she began, “do you mean that he . . . I’m sorry, darling, I don’t seem to understand. How could he raise the winds?”

“‘The beating of the cards is the wind’,” he answered, “but don’t try and believe it now. Think of it as a fable, but think that on some point of the sea-shore one of those wild fugitives stood by night and shook these cards — these”— he laid his hand on the heap of the suit of staffs or sceptres —“and beat the air with them till he drove it into tumult and sent the great blasts over the seas to drive the ships of King Philip to wreck and destruction. See that in your mind; can you?”

“I can,” she said. “It’s a mad picture, but I can.”

He stooped to pick up the case, and restored to it the swords, the staffs, and the cups, and the Greater Trumps, all in silence; then he laid it by, and took up the suit deniers, or coins, or pentacles.

“Now,” he said, smiling at her, “shall we see what your hands and mine can do?”

“Tell me,” she answered.

He gave the fourteen cards to her, and, standing close by her, he made her hold them in both hands and laid his own over hers. “Now listen,” he said in her ear, speaking slowly and commandingly; “you will think of earth, garden-mould, the stuff of the fields, and the dry dust of the roads: the earth your flowers grow in, the earth to which our bodies are given, the earth which in one shape or another makes the land as parted from the waters. Will you do as I say?”

Very serious, she looked up at him. “Yes, Henry,” she said, and her voice lingered a little on the second word, as if she gave herself so the more completely to his intention. He said again: “Earth, earth of growing and decaying things — fill your mind with the image of it. And let your hands be ready to shuffle the cards. Hold them securely but lightly, and if they seem to move let them have their way. Help them; help them to slide and shuffle. I put my hands over yours; are you afraid?”

She answered quite simply, “Need I be?”

“Never at all,” he said, “neither now nor hereafter. Don’t be afraid; these things can be known, and it’s good for us to know them. Now — begin.”

She bent her mind to its task, a little vaguely at first, but soon more definitely. She filled it with the thought of the garden, the earth that made it up, dry dust sometimes, sometimes rich loam — the worms that crawled in it and the roots of the flowers thrusting down — no, not worms and roots — earth, deep thick earth. Great tree-roots going deep into it — along the roots her mind penetrated into it, along the dividing, narrowing, dwindling roots, all the crannies and corners filled with earth, rushing up into her shoulder-pits, her elbows sticking out, little bumps on those protracted roots. Mould clinging together, falling apart; a spade splitting it, almost as if thrust into her thoughts, a spadeful of mould. Digging — holes, pits, mines, tunnels, graves — no, those things were not earth. Graves — the bodies in them being made one with the earth about them, so that at last there was no difference. Earth to earth — she herself earth; body, shoulders, limbs, earth in her arms, in her hands.

There were springs, deep springs, cisterns and wells and rivers of water down in the earth, water floating in rocky channels or oozing through the earth itself; the earth covering, hampering, stifling them, they bursting upwards through it. No, not water — earth. Her feet clung to it, were feeling it, were strangely drawing it up into themselves, and more and more and higher and higher that sensation of unity with the stuff of her own foundation crept. There were rocks, but she was not a rock — not yet; something living, like an impatient rush of water, was bubbling up within her, but she felt it as an intrusion into the natural part of her being. Her lips were rough against each other; her face must be stained and black. She almost put up her wrist to brush the earth from her cheek — not her hand, for that also was dirty; her fingers felt the grit. They were, both hands, breaking and rubbing a lump of earth between them; they were full and heaped with earth that was slipping over them and sliding between the fingers, and she was trying to hold it in-not to let it escape.

“Gently, gently,” a voice murmured in her ear. The sound brought her back with a start, and dispelled the sensation that held her; she saw again the cards in her hands, and saw now that her hands, with Henry’s lying over them, were shuffling the cards, each moment more quickly. She was trying to keep up with the movement, she wasn’t initiating it — and that feeling of earth escaping was in fact only this compulsion which the cards were exercising. They were sliding out and sliding back — now she saw the four of deniers on top, and now the ace, and now the Esquire, and now the King, a hatted figure, with a four-forked beard, holding the coin — or whatever it was — in a gloved hand. It shone up at her, and a card from below slipped out, and her fingers thrust it back, and it covered the King — the nine of deniers. A slight sound reached her — a curious continuous sound, yet hardly a sound at all, a faint rustle. The cards were gritty, or her hands were; or was it the persistent rubbing of her palms against the edges of the cards? What was that rustling noise? It wasn’t her mere fancy, nor was it mere fancy that some substance was slipping between her fingers. Below her hands and the cards she saw the table, and some vague unusualness in it attracted her. It was black — well, of course, but a dull heavy black, and down to it from her hands a kind of cloud was floating. It was from there that the first sound came; it was something falling — it was earth, a curtain, a rain of earth falling, falling, covering the part of the table immediately below, making little sliding sounds — earth, real black earth.

“Steady,” said the voice in her ear. She had a violent impulse to throw the cards away from her — if she could, if she could rend her hands from them, but of course she couldn’t: they, earthy as they were, belonged to this other earth, the earth that was slipping everywhere over and between her fingers, that was already covering the six of deniers as it slid over the two. But there were other hands; hers weren’t alone; she pressed them back into her lover’s, and said, keeping her voice as steady as she could: “Couldn’t we stop?”

Breath deeply drawn answered her: then Henry’s voice. “Yes,” it said. “Steady, steady. Think with me, think of the cards — cards — drawings — just drawings — line and colour. Press them back, harder: use your hands now — harder.”

It was as if a brief struggle took place between her hands and that which they held: as if the thing refused to be governed and dominated. But it yielded; if there had been any struggle, it ceased. Her strong hands pressed back the cards, pushed them level; her thumb flicked them. Henry’s hands left hers and took the suit. She let hers drop, took a step away, and looked at the table. There lay on it a little heap of what seemed like garden mould.

Faintness caught her; she swayed. Henry’s arm round her took her to a chair. She gasped out, “I’m all right. Stop a minute,” and held on to the arm. “It’s nothing,” she said to herself, “it’s quite simple. It’s only that I’m not used to it — whatever it is.” That it was any kind of trick did not even enter her mind; Henry and that sort of trick could not exist together. Earth on the dining-room table. Aunt Sybil would wonder why it was there. She deliberately opened her eyes again, and her mouth opened in spite of her. It was still there.

“All right?” Henry’s voice said.

Nancy made a great effort. “Yes,” she said. “Henry, what’s happened? I mean —”

“You’re frightened!” he said accusingly.

“I’m not frightened,” she said.

“If you are, I can’t tell you anything,” he said. “I can’t share with you unless you want me to. This is only the beginning: you’d better understand that at once.”

“Yes, darling,” she said. “Don’t be cross with me. It’s a little sudden, isn’t it? Is it . . . is it real?”

He picked up some of the earth and scattered it again.

“Quite,” he said. “You could grow evergreens in it.”

“Then,” said Nancy, with a slightly hysterical note in her voice, “I think you’d better ring for Agnes to clear it up.”

“Touch it,” he said, “feel it, be sure it’s real.”

“I wouldn’t touch it for anything,” she exclaimed. “Do ring, Henry. I want to see Agnes taking it away in a dustpan. That’ll prove it’s real.”

Agnes indeed removed it in a dustpan, without any other emotion than a slight surprise and a slight perplexity. It was clear that she couldn’t think what Miss Nancy and her young man had been about; but it was also clear that she supposed whatever they had been about had resulted in a small heap of earth on the dining-room table, which she efficiently removed, and then herself disappeared. Nancy lay back in her chair, and there was a complete silence for a long time.

At last she stirred and looked at Henry. “Tell me now,” she said.

He leaned against the mantelpiece, looking down on her. “I’ve told you,” he answered. “I told you at first; at least, I hinted at it. There is correspondence everywhere; but some correspondences are clearer than others. Between these cards”— he pointed to the leather case in which he had replaced the denier suit “and the activities of things there is a very close relation . . . ”

She broke in. “Yes, darling; don’t explain it, just tell me,” she said. “What you said about the wind, and this, and everything.”

“Earth, water, air, and fire,” he said. “Deniers, cups, sceptres, swords. When the hands of a man deal in a certain way with the cards, the living thing comes to exist.”

She looked down at the hands that lay in her lap. “Hands,” she said. “Can they do it?”

“They can do anything,” he said. “They have power.”

“But why the cards . . .?” she asked.

He smiled at her, and suddenly she threw out her arms to him and he leant and caught her in his own. The movement gathered her, but it was she who was raised from her chair, not he who was brought down to that other level, and even while he murmured to her his voice was charged with an exultant energy, and when upon her moving he loosed her at last there was in his action something of one who lays down a precious instrument till it shall be required. Or, since he kept his eyes on her, something of one who watches a complex and delicate piece of machinery to see if everything runs smoothly, and the experiment for which it is meant may be safely dared.

Nancy patted her hair and sat down again. “Next time,” she said, “I shall be more prepared.”

“There is to be a next time?” he asked, testing a screw in the machinery.

Her eyes were seriously upon him. “If you choose,” she said, “and you will, won’t you? If you want me to help, I will. But next time perhaps you’d better tell me more about it first. Why does it happen?”

“I don’t know why,” he said, “but how is clear enough. These cards are in touch with a thing I’ll show you at Christmas, and they’re in touch with — well, there aren’t any words for it — with the Dance.”

“The Dance?” she asked.

“The Dance that is . . . everything,” he answered. “You’ll see. Earth, air, fire, water — and the Greater Trumps. There’s a way to all knowledge and prophecy, when the cards and they are brought together. But, O Nancy, Nancy, if you’ll see what I see and want what I want, there’s a way — if it can be found, there’s a way.” He caught her hands in his. “Hands,” he cried, “hands among them and all that they mean. Feel it; give it to me; take it.”

She burned back to his ardour. “What will you do?” she asked, panting.

He held her hands more tightly. “Who knows?” he answered, rising on the wings of his own terrific dream. “Create.”

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