The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Seven

The Dance in the World

The sense of strain that had come into being on the Thursday night existed still on the morning of Christmas Eve. Henry and Mr. Coningsby were markedly the centres of conflicting emotions, and Mr. Coningsby was disposed to make his daughter into the battle-field since she seemed to hesitate to support him with a complete alliance. He alluded, as the two of them talked after a slightly uncomfortable breakfast, to the unusual sight which had been exposed to them the night before.

“I must say,” he remarked, “that I thought it showed poorer taste than I had hoped for in Henry, to try that trick of the moving dolls on us.”

“But why do you call it a trick, father?” Nancy objected. “They were moving; and that was all Henry said.”

“It was not by any means all,” Mr. Coningsby answered. “To be quite candid, Nancy, he disappointed me very much; he practically tried to swindle me out of that pack of cards by making an excuse that the dolls were very much like them. Am I to give up everything that belongs to me because anyone has got something like it?”

Nancy thought over this sentence without at once replying.

Put like that, it did sound unreasonable. But how else could it be put, to convince her father? Could she say, “Father, I’ve created earth, and seen policemen and nurses become emperors and empresses, and moved in a golden cloud where I had glimpses of a dance that went all through my blood?” Could she? Could she tell him that her mind still occasionally remembered, as if it were a supernatural riddle, the shock of seeing the crucifix with its head above its feet, and the contrast with the Hanged Man of the cards? She said at last, “I don’t think Henry meant it quite like that. I’d like you to be fair to him.”

“I hope I’m always fair,” said Mr. Coningsby, meaning that he couldn’t imagine Eternal Justice disagreeing with him, “but I must say I’m disappointed in Henry.”

Nancy looked at the fire. Dolls? She would have been annoyed, only she was too bothered. Her father must be there, if she could only get at him. But, so far as that went, he might as well be shut away from her in the gleaming golden mist. He might as well be a grey automaton — he was much more like a moving doll than the images of the hidden room, than Henry, than Sybil and Joanna hand in hand, than the white-cloaked governor of the roads, than Henry, than the witches of Macbeth’s encounter, than the staring crucifix, than the earth between her hands, than Henry . . . She looked at him dubiously. She had meant to ask him if she and Henry might have the Tarot pack again that evening, because Henry wanted to tell her something more, and she wanted to know. But he wouldn’t, he certainly wouldn’t. Might she borrow them for an hour without asking him? It wouldn’t hurt them or him. They were on his dressing-table; she had seen them there, and wondered why he hadn’t locked them away. But she knew — it was because he hadn’t really expected them to be taken; he had only wanted to be nasty to Henry. Suppose she asked him and he refused — it would be too silly! But was she to lose all this wonder, which so terrified and exalted her, because he wanted to annoy Henry? O, in heaven’s name what would a girl who was trying to love do?

Love (presumably) at that moment encouraged Mr. Coningsby, meditating on his own fair-mindedness and his generous goodwill, to say, “I’d always be willing for him to borrow them, if I could be sure of getting them back. But —”

Nancy lifted eyes more affectionate than she knew. “If I promised I’d give them back, father, whenever you liked?”

Mr. Coningsby, a little taken aback, said evasively, “It isn’t you I’m doubtful about. You’re my daughter, and you know there’s such a thing as decency.”

It would be only decent, Nancy thought, for her not to take the cards for use without his consent; but it would also be only decent for him to lend them. She said, “You’d trust me with them?”

“Of course, of course, if the necessity arose,” Mr. Coningsby said, a trifle embarrassed, and feeling glad that the necessity couldn’t arise. Nancy, relieved from her chief embarrassment, decided that the necessity had arisen. She felt that it would be silly to compel her father to a clearer statement. She said, as clearly as possible, “I’ll take care of them,” but Sybil came into the room at that moment and the remark was lost. Nancy, a little bewildered by the sudden appearance in her life of a real moral problem, and hoping sincerely that she had tried to solve it sincerely, slid away and went to look for Henry.

It was with Henry, and holding the Tarots, that she entered the room that evening and passed the curtains; together they stood before the golden images. Nancy felt the difference; what had on the previous night been a visit of curiosity, of interest, was now a more important thing. It was a deliberate repetition, an act of intention, however small; but it was also something more. By her return, and her return with Henry, she was inviting a union between the mystery of her love and the mystery of the dance. As she stood, again gazing at it, she felt suddenly a premonition of that union, or of the heart of it. It must be in herself that the union must be, in a discovery of some new state perhaps as unlike her love and her vision as they were unlike the ignorant Nancy of the previous year — there was no other place nor other means, whatever outward change took place. All that she did could but more deeply reveal her to herself; if only the revelation could be as good and lovely as . . . as Henry found her. Could she believe in herself so? Dared she trust that such a beauty was indeed the final answer, or could be made so?

But before she could search out her own thoughts he spoke to her.

“You saw last night how fortunes can be told,” he said. “The cards that you held are the visible channel between the dance and you. You hold them in your hands and —”

“Tell me first,” she said, “now we’re here alone, tell me more of this dance. It’s more than fortune-telling, isn’t it? Why do the cards make earth? Why do you call some of them the Greater Trumps? Is it only a name? Tell me; you must tell me now.”

He drew a deep breath, began to speak, and then, checking, made a despairing movement with his hands. “O, how shall I explain,” he cried out, “what we can only be taught to imagine? What only a few among my own people can imagine? I’ve brought you here, I’ve wanted you here, and now it’s too much for me. There aren’t any words — you’ll think me as mad as that wretched woman on the roads.”

“How do you know I think her mad?” Nancy said. “Did Aunt Sybil seem to? You must try and tell me, Henry — if you think it’s important. If you don’t,” she added gravely, lifting serious eyes to his, “I should be sorry, because it would all be only a conjurer’s trick.”

He stood away from her a step or two, and then, looking not at her but at the table, he began again to speak. “Imagine, then, if you can,” he said, “imagine that everything which exists takes part in the movement of a great dance — everything, the electrons, all growing and decaying things, all that seems alive and all that doesn’t seem alive, men and beasts, trees and stones, everything that changes, and there is nothing anywhere that does not change. That change — that’s what we know of the immortal dance; the law in the nature of things — that’s the measure of the dance, why one thing changes swiftly and another slowly, why there is seeming accident and incalculable alteration, why men hate and love and grow hungry, and cities that have stood for centuries fall in a week, why the smallest wheel and the mightiest world revolve, why blood flows and the heart beats and the brain moves, why your body is poised on your ankles and the Himalayas are rooted in the earth — quick or slow, measurable or immeasurable, there is nothing at all anywhere but the dance. Imagine it — imagine it, see it all at once and in one!”

She did not speak, and after a minute’s silence he broke out again.

“This is all that there is to learn; our happiest science guesses at the steps of a little of it. It’s always perfect because it can’t be anything else. It knows nothing of joy or grief; it’s movement, quick as light, slow as the crumbling of a stone tomb in the jungle. If you cry, it’s because the measure will have it so; if you laugh, it’s because some gayer step demands it, not because you will. If you ache, the dance strains you; if you are healthy, the dance carries you. Medicine is the dance; law, religion, music, and poetry — all these are ways of telling ourselves the smallest motion that we’ve known for an instant before it utterly disappears in the unrepeatable process of that. O Nancy, see it, see it — that’s the most we can do, to see something of it for the poor second before we die!”

The very dance itself seemed to have paused in her, so motionless her light form held itself, so rapt in its breathless suspension as the words sounded through her, and before her eyes the small shapes of glory turned and intertwined.

“But once,” he went on, “— some say in Egypt long before the Pharaoh heard of Yussuf Ben–Yakoob, and some in Europe while the dreaming rabbis whispered in the walled ghetto over fables of unspeakable words, and some in the hidden covens of doctrine which the Church called witchcraft — once a dancer talked of the dance, not with words, but with images; once a mind knew it to the seventy-eighth degree of discovery, and not only knew it, but knew how it knew it, so beautifully in one secret corner the dance doubled and redoubled on itself. And then the measure, turning here and there, perpetually harmonious, wrought out these forms of gold in correspondence with something at least of itself, becoming its own record, change answering to change. We can’t guess who, we can’t tell how, but they were carried in the vans of the gipsies about Europe till they were brought here, and here they still are.”

She moved a hand and he paused; as if willing to speak from herself, she said — the voice and the words desiring a superfluous but compensating confirmation, as of step answering to step: “To look at these then is to have the movement made visible? This is what is going on . . . now, immediately now? Isn’t there anything anywhere that isn’t happening there?”

He pointed to the table. “This is the present,” he said, “and this is the only present, and even that is changed before it can be known.”

“Yet you said,” she answered, “that this unknown man knew how it was to be known. How was that? and why, dearest, are the figures — the images, I mean — made as they are?”

“It would need another seer to explain,” he said, “and that seer would have to pass behind the symbols and see them from within. Do you understand, Nancy? Do you understand that sometimes where one can hardly go, two may? Think of that, and think what might be seen and done within the dance if so much can be seen without. All we know is that the images are the twenty-one and the nought, and the four fours and the four tens. Doubtless these numbers themselves are of high necessity for proper knowledge, but their secret too is so far hidden within the dance.”

“Yet you must have considered the shapes, darling?” she asked.

“The shapes, perhaps, are for two things,” he answered more slowly, “for resemblance and for communication. On the one hand they must mean some step, some conjunction, some — what we call a fact — that is often repeated in the infinite combinations; on the other, it must be something that we know and can read. This, I think, is what was meant, but even the secondary meaning has been lost — or was lost while the cards were separated from the golden images, as if a child were taken from its mother into some other land and never learned her language, that language which should have been the proper inheritance of its tongue.”

He stopped short, as if the thought troubled him, and the girl, with the same memory in her mind, said, “Did the woman on the road mean that when she talked to us?”

“I don’t care what she meant,” he said almost harshly. “Neither she nor anyone but ourselves concerns us now. No one but ourselves has a proper right to talk of the cards or the images.”

He glanced at her as he spoke, but, smiling very slightly, she let the utterance die, and said only: “Tell me more of the cards.”

“The cards were made with the images,” he answered; “the mark in the corner of each of them is the seal of the bottom of each golden shape; seventy-eight figures and as many seals on as many cards. The papyrus paintings are exactly the same as the figures; they are the paintings of the figures. This, as I told you a month ago, when we first saw them, is the only perfect set, correspondence to correspondence, and therefore the only set by which the sublime dance can be read. The movement changes incessantly, but in every fractional second it is so, and when these cards are brought to it they dispose themselves in that order, modified only by the nature of the hands between which they are held, and by the order into which they fall we read the fortune of whoever holds them.”

“But the suits, you said, are the elements?” she asked.

He nodded. “But that is in the exterior world; they are the increasing strength of the four elements, and in the body of a man there are corresponding natures. This is the old doctrine of humours which your schoolmistress taught you, no doubt, that you might understand Ben Jonson or what not.”

“And the others?” she said; “the Greater Trumps?”

He came near to her and spoke more low, almost as if he did not want the golden dancers to know that he was talking of them. “They,” he said, “are the truths — the facts — call them what you will — principles of thought, actualities of corporate existence, Death and Love and certain Virtues and Meditation and the Benign Sun of Wisdom, and so on. You must see them — there aren’t any words to tell you.”

“The Devil — if it is a devil?” she said.

“It is the unreasonable hate and malice which moves in us,” he answered.

“The juggler — if it is a juggler?” she asked.

“It is the beginning of all things — a show, a dexterity of balance, a flight, and a falling. It’s the only way he — whoever he was — could form the beginning and the continuation of the dance itself.”

“Is it God then?” Nancy asked, herself yet more hushed.

Henry moved impatiently. “What do we know?” he answered. “This isn’t a question of words. God or gods or no gods, these things are, and they’re meant and manifested thus. Call it God if you like, but it’s better to call it the juggler and mean neither God nor no God.”

“And the Fool who doesn’t move?” she said after a pause.

“All I can tell you of that,” he said grimly, “is that it is the Fool who doesn’t move. There are tales and writings of everything but the Fool; he comes into none of the doctrines or the fortunes. I’ve never yet seen what he can be.”

“Yet Aunt Sybil saw him move,” she said.

“You shall ask her about it some time,” he answered, “but not yet. Now I have told you as much as I can tell of these things; the sense of them is for your imagination to grasp. And when you have come to understand it so, then we may see whether by the help of the Tarots we may find our way into the place beyond the mists. But meanwhile I will show you something more. Wait for me a minute.”

He paused, considering; then he went to a different part of the curtains and disappeared through what she supposed was another opening in them. She heard a sound, as if he were opening a window, then he came back to her.

“If you look up at this room from without,” he said, “you will see it has four windows in it. I have opened the eastern one. Now see.”

He went to the part of the table nearest to the window he had opened, and, feeling beneath it, drew out a curved ledge, running some third of the way round the table. It was some three feet wide, and it reached, when it was fully extended, almost to the curtains; it also was of gold, and there were faint markings on it, though Nancy could not see very well what they were — some sort of map of the world, she thought. Henry turned a support of wood to hold it rigid and began to lay the Tarot cards upon it. He spread the Greater Trumps along the table edge in the order of their numbering. But he began, not with the first, but with the second card, which was that of the Empress, and so on till he came to the pictures which were called xx The Last Judgement — where a Hand thrust out of cloud touched a great sarcophagus and broke it, so that the skeleton within could arise, and xxi The World — where a single singing form, as of a woman, rose in a ray of light towards a clear heaven of blue, leaving moon and sun and stars beneath her feet. The first, however, which showed a juggler casting little balls into the air, he laid almost in the middle, resting it upon the twelfth card, which was the Wheel of Fortune, and supporting it against the edge of the table itself behind, over which it projected; under the Wheel of Fortune he hid the Fool. Having done this carefully, he went on very quickly with the rest of his task. He took the four suits and laid them also on the ledge from left to right, the deniers, the cups, the sceptres, the swords. Of each suit he laid first, against and slightly overlapping the Greater Trumps, the four Court cards — the King, the Queen, the Knight, the Esquire; in front of, and again overlapping these, the ten, the nine, the eight, and the seven; then, similarly arranged, the six, the five, and the four; then the three and the two; and in front of all, pointing outwards, the ace of each suit, so that the whole company of the Tarots lay with their base curved against the table of the dance, and pointing with a quadruple apex towards the curtains behind which was the open window.

As soon as this was done he stepped back to Nancy, thrust an arm round her, and said: “Look at the curtains.” She obeyed, but not continuously; her eyes turned back often to the cards on the ledge, and it was while she gazed at them that she became aware how, in the movement of the dance, the Juggler among the images had approached the corresponding card. He seemed to her to run swiftly, while still he kept the score or so balls spinning over him in the air, and as he went he struck against the card and it slid from its place. Its fall disturbed the Wheel of Fortune on which it stood, and immediately the whole of the cards were in movement, sliding over and under each other — she gazed, enchanted, till Henry whispered in her ear, “The curtain!”

She looked, and at first instead of a curtain she saw only the golden mist in which she had found herself on the previous night. But it was already gathering itself up, dissipated, lost in an increasing depth of night. At first she thought the curtains had disappeared and she was looking out through the open window, but it was hardly that, for there was no frame or shape. The dark hangings of the room here lost themselves in darkness. She had not passed through the mist, but she was looking beyond it, and as within it her own fortune had been revealed so now some greater thing came into conjunction with the images, and the cards moved under the union of the double influence. For within the darkness a far vision was forming. She saw a gleam of green close before her; she heard for an instant what seemed the noise of waves on the shore. Then against that line of greenish-blue a shore actually grew; she saw the waves against it. As she gazed, it dwindled, growing less as what was beyond it was shaped in the darkness. Small and far, as if modelled with incredible minute exactitude, there emerged the image of a land with cities and rivers, railways and roads. The shape defined itself and was familiar; she was looking at a presentation of Holland and Belgium and Northern France, and — for, even as she understood, the limits expanded and what she saw seemed to grow smaller yet, as wider stretches came into view — there were the Alps, there was Italy; that dome of infinitesimal accuracy, above like infinitesimal detail, was St. Peter’s — and beyond were more seas and islands and the sweep of great plains. Before her breath had thrice sighed itself out she saw India and Asia, with its central lakes, and Everest, its small peak dazzling white against the dark, and, as she breathed again, Tibet expanded into China, and the horizon of that mysterious night fled farther away and closed at length upon the extreme harbours of Japan. The whole distance lay before her, and she knew certainly within her that she was seeing no reproduction or evoked memory, but the vast continents themselves, with all that they held. She looked on the actual thing; earth was stretched before her, and the myriad inhabitants of that great part of earth.

Fast in Henry’s arm, as if leaning forward from a height, she strained to see; and something of man’s activities she did indeed discern. There were moving specks on certain roads especially away in Northern China; and, since there chiefly she could trace movement, without deliberate intention concentrated on it. It grew larger before her, and the rest of the vision faded and diminished. She unconsciously desired to see, and she saw men — companies of men — armies — all in movement — details she could not hold her gaze steadily enough to observe, but there was no doubt that they were armies, and moving. There was a town — they were about it — it was burning. Her concentration could not but relax, and again all this receded, and again before her the whole of Europe and of Asia lay. But now the seas and continents were no longer still; they were shaken as if with earthquake; they were dissolving, taking fresh shapes, rising into, changing into, the golden images that danced upon their golden ground. Only here they danced in night upon no ground. They started from the vanishing empires and nations; cities leapt together, and Death came running instead; from among the Alps the Imperial cloak swept snow into itself; rivers poured into the seas and the seas into nothing, and cups received them and bearers of cups, and a swift procession of lifted chalices wound among the gathering shapes. From Tibet, from Rome, some consummation came together, and the hierophant, the Pope of the Tarots, took ritual steps towards that other joined beauty of the two lovers for which her grateful heart always searched. All earth had been gathered up: this was the truth of earth. The dance went on in the void; only even there she saw in the centre the motionless Fool, and about him in a circle the juggler ran, for ever tossing his balls.

She felt, being strangely, and yet not strangely, conscious of his close neighbourhood, Henry draw himself together as if to move. She felt him move — and between those two sensations she saw, or she thought she saw, a complete movement in the dance. Right up to the hitherward edge of the darkness the two lovers came; they wheeled back; her eyes followed them, and saw suddenly all the rest of the dancers gathering in on either side, so that the two went on between those lines towards where the Fool stood still as though he waited them. After them other opposing forms wheeled inward also, the Emperor with the Empress, the mitred hierophant with the woman who equalled him; and the first twain trod on the top of the Wheel of Fortune and passed over; before them rose the figure of the Hanged Man, and they disjoined to pass on either side and went each under his cross, and Death and the Devil ran at them, and they running also came to a tower that continually fell into ruin and was continually reedified; they passed into it, and when they issued again they were running far from each other, but then the golden light broke from each and met and mingled, and over them stars and the moon and the sun were shining; yet a tomb lay in their path, and the Fool — surely the motionless Fool! — stretched out his hand and touched it, and from within rose a skeleton; and it joined the lovers in their flying speed, and was with each, and the Fool was moving, was coming; but then she lost sight of lovers and skeleton, and of all the figures there were none left but the Juggler who appeared suddenly right under her eyes and went speedily up a single path which had late been multitudinous, and ran to meet the Fool. They came together; they embraced; the tossing balls fell over them in a shower of gold — and the golden mist covered everything, and swirled before her eyes; and then it also faded, and the hangings of the room were before her, and she felt Henry move.

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