The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Nine

Sybil

Sybil Coningsby stepped out into the storm and tried to see before her. It was becoming very difficult, and the force of the wind for the moment staggered and even distressed her. She yielded to it a little both in body and mind; she knew well that to the oppositions of the world she could in herself offer no certain opposition. As her body swayed and let itself move aside under the blast, she surrendered herself to the only certain thing that her life had discovered: she adored in this movement also the extreme benevolence of Love. She sank before the wind, but not in impotence; rather as the devotee sinks before the outer manifestations of the God that he may be made more wholly one with that which manifests. Delaying as if both she and it might enjoy the exquisite promise of its arrival, it nevertheless promised, and, as always, came. She recovered her balance, swaying easily to each moment’s need, and the serene content which it bestowed filled again and satisfied her.

It satisfied, but for no more than the briefest second did she allow herself to remain aware of that. Time to be aware, and to be grateful for that awareness, she enjoyed; literally enjoyed, for both knowledge and thankfulness grew one, and joy was their union, but that union darted out towards a new subject and centre. Darted out and turned in; its occupation was Lothair Coningsby, and Lothair was already within it. It did not choose a new resting-place, but rather ordered its own content, by no greater a movement than the shifting of the accent from one syllable back to the other. So slight a variation as gives the word to any speaker a new meaning gave to this pure satisfaction a new concern. She was intensely aware of her brother; she drew up the knowledge of him from within her, and gave it back within her. In wave after wave the ocean of peace changed its “multitudinous laughter” from one myriad grouping to another. And all, being so, was so.

Such a state, in which the objects of her concern no longer struck upon her thoughts from without, recalled by an accident, a likeness, or a dutiful attention, but existed rather as they did in their own world — a state in which they were brought into being as by the same energy which had produced their actual natures — had not easily been reached. That sovereign estate, the inalienable heritage of man, had been in her, as in all, falsely mortgaged to the intruding control of her own greedy desires. Even when the true law was discovered, when she knew that she had the right and the power to possess all things, on the one condition that she was herself possessed, even then her freedom to yield herself had been won by many conflicts. Days of pain and nights of prayer had passed while her lonely soul escaped; innocent joys as well as guilty hopes had been starved. There had been a time when the natural laughter that attended on her natural intelligence had been hushed, when her brother had remarked that “Sybil seemed very mopy”. She had been shocked when she heard this by a sense of her disloyalty, since she believed enjoyment to be a debt which every man owes to his fellows, partly for its own sake, partly lest he at all diminish their own precarious hold on it. She attempted dutifully to enjoy and failed, but while she attempted it the true gift was delivered into her hands.

When the word Love had come to mean for her the supreme greatness of man she could hardly remember: one incident and another had forced it on her mind — the moment when her mother, not long before death, had said to her, “Love, Sybil, if you dare; if you daren’t, admit it”; the solemn use of the name in the great poets, especially her youthful reading of Dante; a fanatic in a train who had given her a tract: Love God or go to Hell. It was only after a number of years that she had come to the conclusion that the title was right, except perhaps for go to — since the truth would have been more accurately rendered by be in Hell. She was doubtful also about God; Love would have been sufficient by itself but it was necessary at first to concentrate on something which could be distinguished from all its mortal vessels, and the more one lived with that the more one found that it possessed in fact all the attributes of Deity. She had tried to enjoy, and she remembered vividly the moment when, walking down Kingsway, it had struck her that there was no need for her to try or to enjoy: she had only to be still, and let that recognized Deity itself enjoy, as its omnipotent nature was. She still forgot occasionally; her mortality still leapt rarely into action, and confused her and clouded the sublime operation of — of It. But rarely and more rarely those moments came; more and more securely the working of that Fate which was Love possessed her. For it was fatal in its nature; rich and austere at once, giving death and life in the same moment, restoring beyond belief all the things it took away — except the individual will.

Its power rose in her now and filled her with the thought of her brother. As she came from the drive into the road she looked as alertly as she could before her in case he staggered into sight. Whether she was going to find him or not she couldn’t tell, but it was apparently her business to look for him, or she wouldn’t have felt so strongly the conviction that, of all those in the house, she alone was to go out and search. That she should be walking so lightly through the storm didn’t strike her as odd, because it wasn’t really she who was walking, it was Love, and naturally Love would be safe in his own storm. It was, certainly, a magnificent storm; she adored the power that was displayed in it. Lothair, she thought, wouldn’t be adoring it much at the moment: something in her longed passionately to open his eyes, so that the two of them could walk in it happily together. And Nancy, and Henry — O, and Aaron Lee, and Ralph, and everyone they all knew, until the vision of humanity rejoicing in this tumultuous beauty seemed to show itself to her, and the delight of creation answered the delight of the Creator, joy triumphing in joy.

It was the division in the road where Lothair might go wrong: to take the right-hand path would lead him away over the Downs. If she got there without meeting him, should she go on or herself turn up the other road? She had long ago discovered that Love expected you to do the best you could to solve such questions before leaving It to decide. The intellect had to be finely ready before It deigned to use it. So she tried to think, and kicked something in the road.

It wasn’t her brother at any rate, she thought, yet it had felt as if it were soft and alive. She bent down, put her hand out, and, grasping something just at her feet, gathered it up — to discover that it was a rather large kitten. Where it came from she couldn’t think — probably from the Lees’ house. She warmed and caressed and petted it, till the half-frozen brute began to pay some attention, then she undid a button of her coat and thrust in her hand and wrist, extended upon which the kitten lay contentedly purring. Sybil went on, smiling to think that perhaps Lothair had passed her and was already safe; the Power that governed her would be quite capable of dragging her out of the house to save a kitten from cold. She adored It again: perhaps the kitten belonged to some child in the village, and she was taking a four-mile walk in a snowstorm to make a child and a kitten happy. Lothair, she thought, would be honestly puzzled by that, and (she thought more regretfully) while he was honestly puzzled he probably wouldn’t be encouraged to take the four-mile walk. So everyone would be satisfied.

The storm lifted, and she found herself at the parting of the roads, and there, by the hedge, on the extreme wrong side, was a crouching figure. The snow was beginning to pile round it; the wind and flakes seemed to be rushing at it and centring on it. Sybil, holding the kitten firmly, went quickly across the road. For a moment, as she ran, she thought she saw another form, growing out of the driving snow — a tall figure that ran down on the white stairs of the flakes, and as it touched earth circled round the overwhelmed man. Before it a gleam of pale gold, as of its own reflection, since no break in the storm allowed the sinking sun to lighten the world, danced in the air, on the ground, on hands that were stretched out towards the victim. They seemed to touch him, as in the Sistine Chapel the Hand of God for ever touches the waking Adam, and vanished as she reached it. Only, for a moment again, she saw that gleam of flying gold pass away into the air, lost within the whiteness and the gloom. Then she was by him; she leaned down; she touched a shoulder, and held and shook it gently. She herself knelt in the snow to see the better — it was Lothair. His hat was gone; his glasses were gone; his coat was half-off him, flying loose; the buttons, she found, as she tried, with one hand, to pull it round him, were all off. He was blue and dangling.

“What a thing it is to be a Warden in Lunacy,” Sybil thought, “and how much like a baby the dear looks! and how he’d hate to think so! Lothair! Lothair, darling! Lothair!”

He took no notice, save that he seemed to relax and sink even lower. “O dear,” Sybil sighed, “and I can’t put the kitten down!” She pulled at the coat till she got it more or less properly over him; then she stood up, put her left arm round him beneath the shoulders, and made an enormous effort to pull him up also. It was impossible; he was too heavily irresponsible. She stilled herself — either Love would lift him or Love would in some other way sufficiently and entirely resolve the crisis that held them. The practised reference possessed her, and then, kneeling by him, she went on shaking him and calling to him: “Lothair! Lothair! Lothair!”

He opened dull eyes on her. “‘S that you, Sybil?” he said. “Are you go’?”

“Are who gone?” she said. “Do take me home, Lothair. It’s such a terrific storm.”

“‘ur quite all righ’,” he muttered. “Jus’ res’ a min’ an get alon’. Are they go’?”

She shook him again. “I’ve never been out in such weather. Lothair, you always look after me. Do, please, please, take me back!”

She put a poignant wail into her voice that disturbed him. He made his first movement. “I’ll look a’ter you,” he said. “I’ll take . . . back in min’. Didn’ know you were here.”

“I came to you to meet you,” she said, distraught and appealing. “And I’m out in it too.”

He gently shook his head, as he had often done over her folly. “Silly o’ you,” he said. “Ver’ silly. Stop indoors. Did they hit you?”

She clutched his shoulder with a strength that brought him back to clear consciousness. “Ow!” he said, “Sybil, be careful. We must get on. You shouldn’t have come out.” But even as he began to struggle slowly to his feet he looked round, still only half-restored. “Funny,” he went on. “Sure I saw them. Running by me, beating me. Each side. Great men with clubs.”

She thought of the figure she had seemed to see, but she answered, “I’ve not seen them, my dear. O, Lothair, help me up.” Her arm was in his as she spoke, and, so twined, they both struggled awkwardly to their feet. The kitten, alarmed at the earthquake, stuck its claws into Sybil’s wrist. She rubbed it with her little finger to pacify it, and it slowly removed them. Once on his feet, Mr. Coningsby began to take charge. “Keep your arm in mine, and don’t be frightened. It was a good thing you saw me — you’d have been quite lost. I’d stopped for a minute — get my breath. Had you better hold on — both hands?”

“One’s enough, I think,” Sybil said. “We’d both better keep our coats round us, and we shall have to hold them.”

She didn’t feel like producing the kitten, and also she was engaged in secretly getting him on to the right road: she didn’t think Love meant them to stand in the snow arguing which was the way to go. And if Lothair thought it was the left . . .

He vacillated, but not between the roads. The screaming and howling of the blizzard grew louder, and as they moved away from the hedge, both huddled against the wind, for his crouching dragged her upright body down, he paused. “I wonder,” he gasped, “if . . . hadn’t better . . . shelter there . . . a bit.”

“O, take me back,” said Sybil. “I’ve got you.” The ambiguity of those words pleased her immensely, and she said them over again, more slowly, separating them, enjoying the exquisite irony of the universe, which made them even more subtle than at first she had seen. For certainly she hadn’t got him; something other than she was, as she had known it would, carrying and encouraging them both.

“Yes,” Mr. Coningsby panted. “You’re quite all right.”

“Good God,” said Sybil — she thought she might allow herself that, in the circumstances —“yes. Only don’t leave me.”

“I won’t —” he began, but had to abandon it, and merely gasp, “No.”

They went on, struggling back along the way she had come so easily. Most of the time he hung on her arm, leaned on her, or even stumbled and fell against her. But he murmured protective assurances at intervals, and Sybil, her arm pulled and wrenched, her breath knocked from her at every stumble, couldn’t help thinking how really charming and affectionate he was. Because he certainly thought he was helping her on, and he never grew irritable through all that task of salvation, or not beyond panting once or twice, “Can’t think . . . why you . . . came out. Horrible day”; and once, “Good thing you . . . found me.”

“It was,” she answered. “I’m very grateful.” He was really moved, even in his present state, by the thought of her danger; he was very good. “My dear,” she said, pressing his arm.

Slowly, under that imperious command of death, they drove their way onward; each, with more or less strength and intensity, devoted to the other’s preservation. Away on the terrace, Nancy clung to the terrible moving hands, and the magical invocation of wind and snow broke from the hands of the practitioner and rode free: storm to the tenth degree of power was loosed without control.

Fortunately, when, unknown to them, that mischief chanced, they were already near the drive; fortunately for them also, the wider dissemination of the origins of storm weakened it a little directly round them. But as they turned in for the last effort to reach the house, Mr. Coningsby almost halted; only Sybil’s determination kept him moving; as a mere human being, she felt that if the kitten stuck its claws in her once more she should forget that she loved it. It had done so whenever he dragged her over to him. “Need you hold on quite so firmly, darling?” she silently asked it. “You’re quite safe, you know. Sparrows falling to the ground, and so on. I suppose you’re like us; you’ve made your mind up not to fall to the ground, whether your heavenly Father knows it or not. O, Lothair dear, you nearly had me over. Kitten, don’t please. That is, if either of you could possibly manage without.”

Mr. Coningsby almost halted. Right in front of them — in the blind tumult they had almost collided — were other figures; three of them, it seemed. Sybil peered forward.

“I . . . told . . . you so . . . ” her brother managed to articulate; “men . . . with clubs.”

One figure seemed to have a kind of club; indeed, as it struggled on, Sybil saw that it had, but it was rather a staff on which it leant than a club. But the other two hadn’t. They were all going more slowly than the two behind them, who had, indeed, everything considered, come along with remarkable speed. Or, everything considered, perhaps not so remarkable.

“They’re making for the house, I expect,” Sybil said. “Though how they can see their way . . . ” Unobtrusively she guided her brother to one side. “We’d better catch them up,” she added.

Mr. Coningsby nodded. He was drifting again towards unconsciousness. “Then all of us have good res’,” he said; Sybil could only just hear him. “Nice quiet time.”

There was, even Sybil admitted, something attractive in the idea of a nice quiet time. She peered again at the other travellers as they drew level, and saw that the middle one of the three was a woman, a small woman hanging on the arms of the others, but talking. Sybil could just catch the sound of a voice: then the man nearest her turned his face towards her, and she recognized it.

“Ralph!” she cried.

“Hallo, aunt!” Ralph gasped. “Hell of a day . . . what . . . you doing . . . out in it?”

“Walking,” Sybil said vaguely, but he couldn’t hear her, and the conversation ended. He made some inquiring gesture in front of him; she nodded. All five of them beat on together. But the sound from the woman went on, and even pierced the storm and reached Sybil’s ears; it was a kind of chanting. The shrill voice mingled with the wind and was the only thing that was not silenced by it. Its scream answered the wind’s scream; though it was blown away, it was not lost, but carried as if on the music of a mad unison. The storm sang with its companion, reinforced her, made way for her. A word or two came to Sybil.

“ . . . coming . . . coming . . . the whole one shall awake . . . ”

Ralph turned his head with difficulty and made a face at her. Discreetly turned from her brother, she grimaced back. She wondered — could it be the old gipsy Henry had called Joanna? That might explain why these others held so straight a course for the house. But with what wild song was she challenging or hailing the blizzard? and what energy of insane vision so filled her as to give her voice and spirit this strength, though her body hung on the arms of her supporters? Certainly it was not for Sybil Coningsby to deny the dismemberment through earth of the ever-triumphant Osiris, nor the victory that the immortal freshness of Love continually won over his enemies. If it was Love that the old woman was praising now, the shrill voice didn’t quite sound like it. But it might be; with the sweet irony of Perfection, one could never tell. It was never what you expected, but always and always incredibly more.

Something dim loomed in front of them; they were there — they were right up against the front door, Lothair and the kitten and Ralph and these others and she herself: not for salvation from death, but for the mere manifestation of its power, she adored the Mystery of Love. She pressed the bell steadily; Ralph hammered on the door; the other man — Stephen, if it was Stephen — beat on it with his stick. Her brother fell against the door-post. The old woman turned her head — Sybil and she gazed at one another, their eyes recognizing mysteries of remote initiations.

“Perfect hellish weather!” Ralph said.

They heard someone within. The door was opened by Aaron himself, and the blizzard and they entered together. Sybil helped her brother in; then she gave Ralph a quick hand with the door. It closed gradually and was made fast. Her back against it, Sybil turned gently, removing the kitten from her numb arm, and saw Lothair sinking on to a seat; Stephen leaning against the opposite wall; and Joanna, all dripping with melting snow, facing a snarling Aaron.

“I’ve come,” she cried, “I’ve come. Don’t hide him, Aaron. I’ve come to see him wake.”

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