The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Twelve

The Triumph Of The Angelicals

Richardson, returning towards his rooms, decided suddenly not to enter them.

The sweep and wonder of his vision were still with him; his body still palpitated with the echo of those charging hooves, though within him his spirit desired a further end. He longed to approach that other end with the speed of the racing herd, but to such an approach the intoxication of the sight was alien; he subdued himself harshly. Visions and auditions had nothing to do with the final surrender, which was — for him — a thing to be achieved wholly in itself, and (it seemed) without reference to any natural or supernatural event. A lonely life had but emphasized, as the exterior life will, the interior method which he pursued. Even his connexion with Berringer had been but a part of a distraction necessary and right to relieve the rigour of his duty, and to keep him in spiritual health, but not part of that duty. Chance, assisted by his personal tastes, had given him a job among books, and as far as possible he read in those books of the many ways which are always the Way. But not by books or by phrases, not by images or symbols or myths, did he himself follow it. He abstracted himself continually from sense and from thought, attempting always a return to an interior nothingness where that which is itself no thing might communicate its sole essential being.

So separating himself from the memory of the horses, so concentrated on the Nothing of his desires, he walked for some time along the streets until he experienced the easily recognized symptoms of temporary interior exhaustion. Obedient to those symptoms he relaxed and murmured to himself, as was his habit at such conclusions, the phrases from the Dionysius with whom Damaris had been concerned —“He hath not power, nor is he power; He liveth not, nor is He life; neither is He of the things that are or are not, nor is there for Him any word of name or thought, for He is neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth.” As he ended he began again to look round him. He was standing half-way down a street in one of the rather poorer parts of the town — where the lower middle-class were slightly more obviously lower. A tobacconist close by was shutting up for the night; the two recognized each other and nodded.

“Funny business about the telephones,” the tobacconist said.

“I hadn’t heard,” Richardson answered casually but politely. “What was it?”

The tobacconist paused in his task. “All down, so they say,” he explained. “I had occasion to want to speak to my brother in London — my wife thought she’d run up tomorrow by the cheap train — and the Exchange girl told me I couldn’t get through! Couldn’t get a trunk call through on Sunday night! All nonsense it sounded to me, and so I told her, and she as good as told me not to be a fool — the lines were down. They’ve sent out repair gangs, it seems; I had old Mr. Hoskins in-you know him, I expect; the grandfather, I mean; comes in for his quarter-pound every Sunday evening as regularly as the sun . . . well, I ought to say moon, oughtn’t I? at this time of day, but one gets into a habit of speaking.”

“One does,” Richardson murmured in the pause. “Unless one is careful.”

“So he told me,” the tobacconist resumed, “that the poles have fallen down — all along the roads — all smashed to bits they are, he said, and the wires all fused and broken. Most extraordinary thing I ever heard of. Old Hoskins, he thought it must have been the wind, but then as I said to him: ‘Where’s the wind?’ Now my belief is that it’s got something to do with all that thunder we’ve been having the last few days — this electricity’s a funny thing. Don’t you think that’s more likely now, sir?”

Richardson nodded; then seeing that he was expected to speak, said, “It’s certain, I should think, to have something to do with the thunder.”

“And as for hoardings and fences I hear they’re down in a lot of places. Funny thing altogether.”

“Very funny,” Richardson answered. “Awkward if the houses follow suit.”

The tobacconist gaped at him for a moment. “O I don’t think that’s likely,” he began slowly, but looking up at his own first floor with the beginnings of a fearful anxiety. “I mean houses are rather different to hoardings, aren’t they?”

“Houses that have been lived in, perhaps,” Richardson acknowledged, also looking thoughtfully upwards. “Yes, perhaps. There may be an infiltration of human existence . . . ” He ceased and seemed to await a decision.

“Yes,” the tobacconist said, recovering faith. “Human beings make all the difference, don’t they? A little bit of furniture works wonders in an empty house. Why, when we moved in here, I said to my wife about a room where there was nothing had been put but a chair that had got a leg broken — my fault it was — in the shifting — not a carpet down there wasn’t nothing but that bit of chair, and I said to her: ‘It looks like home already.’ Just the difference between a room and four walls and a floor.”

“Is there any?” Richardson asked. “Yes, of course, I see what you mean.” But his spirit cried out that there was in fact no difference; they were alike shape and form and so far temptations to the soul which so long sought refuge in such exterior patterns from the state in which no such patterns were to be found or desired. He felt the contrast so sharply that he could endure no more talk; he forced himself to say, with as little abruptness as possible, “Ah, well, I daresay we shall hear more about it in the morning,” nodded a goodnight and crossed the road.

As he reached the other side he saw before him a church. It was a small, old, rather ugly Wesleyan church; the doors were open because of the heat, and apparently the service was not yet over. Richardson, casually attracted, looked at his watch: nearly nine. He paused on the pavement and looked in. It must, he thought, be some kind of after-service, and, after a few moments’ search, the notice-board confirmed the idea. On the third Sunday in the month there was apparently the Breaking of Bread. It must, he thought, be a rather out-of-date place; most of the Nonconforming Churches had adopted the words “Holy Communion.” Besides, this building still called itself “Zion,” which was surely a rather old-fashioned title. But perhaps he was wrong; he didn’t pretend to be an expert in ecclesiology. All that sort of thing was very well for the minds that could use it; he couldn’t use it, neither the small dull gatherings of the Evangelicals or the large gaudy assemblies of the Catholics. “The flight of the alone to the Alone.” But no doubt this was proper to them — if it increased their speed upon the Way. Speed, speed, and always speed! His mind remembered that wild careering herd; so, and swifter than so, he desired the Return. He seemed to hear the beating hooves again, and while for a moment he attended to that interior echo something huge and rapid drove past him and into the church. Certainly he had felt it, though there was nothing visible, but he had felt the movement of a body and heard the sound of hooves. Within him his chief concern renewed itself in a burst of imperious ardour; he burned towards the — no, not fire; no, not darkness; no words, no thought, nothing but . . . nothing but . . . well, but— that which was when all other “buts” had been removed, and all hindrances abolished. For a moment he felt a premonition; something wholly new and exquisite touched him and was gone.

He was standing in front of the church and looking into it. There didn’t seem to be many there; one or two figures were moving at the upper end; a few more were scattered about the small building. They were seated as if waiting — perhaps for the Breaking of Bread; and as he gazed a gleam of extreme brightness struck through the building and vanished, for the lights within had flashed upon something moving that caught and reflected their radiance in one shining curve as if a sword had been swung right across the church. Blinded by its intensity he took a step back, then he recovered and looked again. This time — and his spirit livened again with his habitual desire — he saw it. It was standing at the other end of Zion; it was something like a horse in shape and size, but of a dazzling whiteness, and from the middle of its forehead there grew a single horn. He recognized the myth of poems and pictures; he saw the Divine Unicorn gently sustaining itself in that obscure and remote settlement of the faithful. He recognized the myth, but he recognized something else too, only he could not put a name to it. The thing moved, pure and stately, a few paces down the aisle, and as it did so he was transported within himself a million miles upon his way. It moved with the beauty of swiftness, however small the distance was that it went; it lowered and tossed its head, and again that gleaming horn caught all the light in Zion, and gathered it, and flashed it back in a dazzling curve of purity. As the brightness passed he saw that within they were still intent upon the service; the deacons were bearing the Bread of the Communion to the few who were there, and as they did so it seemed to the watcher that the unicorn moved its head gently in the direction of each, nay, that some eidolon of itself, though it remained unchanged in the centre, went very swiftly to each, and then he lost sight of the images. Only now he was aware — and only aware — of a sensation of rushing speed passing through his being; it was not for him to adore the unicorn; he was the unicorn. He and those within, and others — who and when and where he did not know, but others — a great multitude whom no man could number — they went swiftly, they were hastening to an end. And again the shining horn flung back the earthly lights around it, and in that reflection the seeker knew himself speeding to his doom. So slow, so slow, the Way had seemed; so swiftly, so swiftly, through aeons and universes, the Principle, the Angel of man’s concern, went onwards in unfailing strength. Yet it had not moved; it stood there still, showing itself, as if in a moment’s dream, to the fellows of devotion, so that each beheld and supposing it to be a second’s fantasy determined not to speak of it. But pure and high the ardour burned in every soul, as Zion shone in Zion, and time hastened to its conclusion in them. The minister gave out a hymn; the voices began it; the great beast of revelation that stood there moved again, and as Richardson unconsciously moved also he felt his arm caught from behind.

Startled and constraining himself, he turned his head. Behind him, a little to his left, clutching his arm, and staring at him with fierce bloodshot eyes, stood Foster. For a few seconds Richardson did not take in the fact; the two remained staring. Then, he could not have told why, he broke into a little laugh; Foster snarled at him, and the hand that was on the other’s arm seemed to clutch and drag at it. Richardson took a step or two backward, his eyes going once more to the aisle as he did so. But this time he could see nothing unusual; indeed, he felt doubtful already of what he had seen, only he knew that there was working within him a swiftness more than he had ever dreamed. The hesitations and sloths that had often hampered him had vanished; he looked at Foster from a distance, down a precipice from the forest of the unicorn to the plain of the lion.

Foster said, “It’s here.”

“It’s always here,” the younger man answered, “but we have to go a long way to find it.”

“Have you got the strength?” Foster asked. He was speaking thickly and with difficulty; the voice blurred itself in the middle of the sentence, and the last word came out almost booming. His face was red, and his shoulders heaving; when he ceased to speak Richardson noticed that his breath was coming in great pants, as if he were struggling against some oppression at his heart. The sight brought back the other’s attention; he looked at Foster and gently disengaged himself, saying quietly, “What’s the strength to you or me? Was that what we went into it for? Speed now, and at that only the right speed.”

“Speed enough too,” Foster answered deeply. “Speed to hunt, strength to kill. Are you for them or are you like that other jackanapes that thought he could stand in the way — in the way of the lion?” The voice rose into a roar and he scrabbled with his feet on the pavement.

Richardson, now completely watchful, said, “It seems that you’re with them entirely now.”

“I’m looking for him,” Foster said, “for him, and”— he began to snarl, “and — and others. There’s — ah! ah! — there’s a man in my off-off-office,” he barely achieved the word, “that I hate, I hate his face, I’ll look after him. The strength’ll be on him. Look, look for him, I’ll look.”

He turned his eyes about him; his mouth opened and his lips curled back over his teeth. Then he seemed to make an effort towards control, and began to mutter something to himself. “Not much yet, lord god!” Richardson heard. “Slowly, lord, slowly! I’ll make sacrifice — the blood of the sacrifice,” and at that a sudden impatient anger caught the young man.

“Fool,” he cried out, “there’s only one sacrifice, and the God of gods makes it, not you.”

Foster did not seem to hear, and Richardson almost at once regretted the outburst. Something in it offended him; it was a pit laid for the silver hooves of an immaculate and solitary virtue that was galloping away, away in the cool light of the stars, amid rivers of chastity, to gardens high up among the snows. There? there — it would find its lair and sleep alone among the trees of Eden before man had fallen and . . .

Images, images, he caught his mind back, abolishing them; beyond images, beyond any created shape or invented fable lay the union of the end. He was lost in his intensity and woke to awareness again to hear Foster saying,

“ . . . the chosen. The chosen are few. Even the woman . . . if I knew . . . knew. The gods know; the gods are here. Here!”

The word went up in a roar up the street. Richardson heard a startled exclamation behind him. He looked round — the worshippers were coming out of Zion, and one of them, an old gentleman with his wife, had jumped violently at the noise. A dismayed voice exclaimed, “Really, really!” A more indignant feminine voice said, “Disgusting! It’s enough to deafen anyone.”

But the bleating of an innocent mortality had no effect on the possessed being before them. He glared round him, then he threw up his head, and began to sniff softly and horribly, as if he were seeking to find a trail. The old gentleman stared, then he said to Richardson, in a voice not quite steady, “Ill, is he?”

“O if he’s ill,” the old lady said in a tone of pity. “Would he like to come in and sit down for a few minutes? We live close by.”

“Yes, do,” the old gentleman added. “A little rest — when my wife comes over faint . . . Well, Martha dear, you do sometimes come over faint.”

“There’s ways of being bad besides coming over faint,” the old lady, now rather pink, but still sweetly anxious to help, said, “Do come in.”

“Thank you very much indeed,” Richardson said gravely, “but I’m afraid it wouldn’t help.” And then, by an irresistible impulse, “I hope you had a happy service?”

They both looked at him with delight. “Now that’s very kind,” the old gentleman said. “Thank you, sir, it was a very beautiful service.”

“Beautiful,” the old lady said. She hesitated, fumbling with her umbrella; then, taking sudden courage, she took a step towards Richardson and went on, “You’ll excuse me, sir, I know it’s old-fashioned, and you quite a stranger, but — are you saved?”

Richardson answered her as seriously as she had spoken, “I believe salvation is for all who will have it,” he said, “and I will have it by the only possible means.”

“Ah, that’s good, that’s good,” the old gentleman said. “Bless God for it, young man.”

“I know you’ll pardon me, sir,” the old lady added, “you being a stranger as I said, and strangers often not liking to talk about it. Though what else there is to talk about . . . ”

“What indeed?” Richardson agreed, and again through the evening there struck upon his ears the noise of galloping hooves, and for a moment the whole earth upon which he stood seemed to be a charging beast upon which he rode, faster than ever his own haste could carry him. But the sound, if it were a sound, struck at the same time on that other creature, half-transfigured, who stood in front of him still. It sprang up, it bellowed out some half-formed word, then it broke off and went leaping down the street; and amazed or meditative the three watched it go.

“Dear me,” the old lady said; and the old gentleman, “He’s behaving very strangely, isn’t he?”

Richardson nodded. “Very strangely, I’m afraid, but —” he sought a phrase at once mutually comprehensible, comforting, and true —“but he’s in the hands of God.”

“Still —” the old gentleman said dubiously. But there was nothing to be done, so they parted and went their way, leaving Richardson standing by the now closed church. The other members of the congregation had come out during the brief conversation and gone. He considered vaguely what to do. And then he remembered Dora Wilmot.

He had spoken of her to Anthony the day before as one of those who desired the power of the Immortals, the virtue of the things that they sought, not for that virtue’s sake, not even for the sake of fresh and greater experiences, but merely that their old experience might be more satisfactory to them. Foster wanted to be stronger than those with whom he came in contact; he had made himself a place for the lion and it seemed the lion was taking possession of its habitation; its roar echoing in the wilderness and the dry places of the soul. Dora Wilmot had never dreamed of such brutal government; but once Richardson had caught the expression in her eyes as she handed a cup of coffee to Mrs. Rockbotham, and any quiet little supper with the — probably slandered — children of the Lord Alexander VI would have seemed to him preferable. And if there had entered into her some subtlety from that world, what was happening to her? or, perhaps more important; what was she doing? It occurred to him that he might go and see; almost at the same time it occurred to him, as he still watched the old lady stepping down the street beside her husband, that he might perhaps — not stop her but offer her an alternative course, if it seemed possible or desirable. After all, that old lady had wanted to be kind, even if she reduced indescribable complexities of experience to an epigram. His own solitary life had rather left him without any formed habit of being kind, he reflected: perhaps he was a little too much inclined to concentrate on an end which was (all the authorities assured him) largely dependent on the way. Anthony Durrant had gone charging off to some unknown Damaris. Berringer had been kind to him. Very well, he would go and see if the road of the unicorn led through the house of Dora Wilmot.

When he arrived there he was, after inquiry, shown in to the room where Anthony had fought with the beasts. Miss Wilmot, thin and sedate, was at her writing table. Several little sealed envelopes lay in a pile at one side: she put down her pen as he entered. They looked at one another with doubt masked by courtesy, and exchanged a few trifling remarks. Then Richardson said, “And what do you make of it all, Miss Wilmot?”

She answered softly. “Have you seen Mr. Foster?”

“Yes,” Richardson admitted. “But only just now. That must be my excuse for calling so late.” On the Day of judgment, if there were another, one would probably say things like that, he thought. But he went on swiftly. “And, to tell you the truth, I don’t much like Mr. Foster at the moment.”

“I shouldn’t expect you to,” she said. “For you . . . he . . . we aren’t meaning . . . ” She was almost stammering, as if she were trying to say several things at once, but under his eyes she made an effort to be collected. Her eyes, nevertheless, went on shooting from side to side, and her restless arms twisted themselves together and again untwisted as she sat.

“You aren’t meaning —?”

“We wouldn’t . . . we shouldn’t . . . find it likely . . . that you . . . ” Suddenly she gave a little tortured scream. “O!” she cried, “O! I can’t keep up! it keeps dividing! There’s too many things to think of!”

He got up and went nearer to her, very watchful. But with an unusual note of pity in his voice he said, “Need you think of them?”

“O yes . . . ” she breathed, “yes-s. There’s the wretch-ch of a Rockbotham. I’ve done hers-s, and Mrs Jacquelin, I’ve done hers. Such a nice, ni-c-ce one, and I’m s-scribbing this-s to the one that s-spoke, the Damaris creature — but sh-she’s strange, so-s I had to s-see what was bes-st.”

She looked up at him malevolently as he stood over her, and with the end of her tongue moistened her lips. Then her eyes changed again and terror came into them, and in a voice from which the dreadful sibilance had departed she cried out, “My head, my head! There’s too much to see, there’s so many ways of doing it! I can’t think.”

Richardson laid his hand on hers. “There is one thing very certain,” he said with firm clearness, “the way to the Maker of the Gods.”

She looked sly. “Will you help me to show old Mother Rockbotham what her husband might be like?” she said. “Or old Jackie what that nephew of hers is doing?” Her eyes went to the sealed letters.

“They didn’t think much of me?” she said. “I could sit here and do their work. But I’m getting my turn now. If only I could see them reading their letters.”

Richardson gathered both her hands, as they lay on the writing table into one of his, and almost released them again as he did so. They were clammy-cold and they wriggled horribly in his grasp. But he held them while he leant quickly across and caught up the little pile of letters: then he released them and sprang back. “What devilry have you been up to?” he asked her harshly. “What are these letters you’re so proud of?”

“I was afraid at first,” she said, “but he told me — Foster told me — they would help us — strength and subtlety, he said. And? and . . . O my head! my head!”

She tried to stand up and could not; she writhed in her chair; but her eyes were fixed on him, and their immediate pain changed as his met them into malice and fear. He ripped a letter open and glanced at it and as he did so she slithered down and began to wriggle towards him across the floor. He had time only for the first few sentences, and a hasty glance at the middle and the end, but they told him all he needed to know. The letter was to Mrs. Rockbotham; it opened with sympathetic phrases of sorrow, then it went on, with a careful and subtle art he had no time then to admire, to bite with stored venom at the heart. The doctor was? he was? for the moment Richardson did not grasp what he was; some evil was suggested, or something that would seem evil to the reader — perversion and cruelty, was it? “Take care of yourself,” one sentence began, and the thing wasn’t signed — yes, it was: “From a Sister in Trouble.” He crumpled it in his hand and leapt aside as a hand touched his ankle then he ran for the door and shouted for the maid. When she showed herself, “Telephone for the doctor,” he called, “your mistress is ill.” Then thrusting the letters in his pocket he went back into the room.

She was where he had left her, but dreadful change was coming over her. Her body was writhing into curves and knots where she lay, as if cramps convulsed her. Her mouth was open but she could not scream: her hands were clutching at her twisted throat. In her wild eyes there was now no malice, only an agony, and gradually all her body and head were drawn up backwards from the floor by an invisible force, so that from her hips she remained rigidly upright and her legs lay stretched straight out behind her upon the ground, as if a serpent in human shape raised itself before him. The sight drove him backwards; he turned his face away, and prayed with all his strength to the Maker of the Celestials. From that refuge he looked again, and saw her convulsed and convulsed with spasms of anguish. But now the very colour of her skin was changing; it became blotched and blurred with black and yellow and green; not only that but it seemed distended about her. Her face rounded out till it was perfectly smooth, with no hollows or depressions, and from her nostrils and her mouth something was thrusting out. In and out of her neck and hands another skin was forming over or under her own? he could not distinguish which, but growing through it, here a coating. there an underveiling. Another and an inhuman tongue was flickering out over a human lips, and the legs were twisted and thrown from side to side as if something prisoned in them were attempting to escape. For all that lower violence her body did not fall, nor indeed, but for a slight swaying, did it much move. Her arms were interlocked in front of her, the extreme ends of her fingers touched the ground between her thighs. But they too were drawn inwards; the stuff of her dress was rending in places; and wherever it rent and hung aside he could see that other curiously-toned skin shining behind it. A black shadow was on her face; a huge shape was emerging from it, from her, growing larger and larger as the Domination she had invoked freed itself from the will and the mind and the body that had given it a place where it could find the earth for its immaterialization. No longer a woman but a serpent indeed surged before him in the darkening room, bursting and breaking from the woman’s shape behind it. It curved and twined itself in the last achievements of liberty; there came through the silence that had accompanied that transmutation a sound as if some slight thing had dropped to the floor, and the Angelic energy was wholly free.

It was free. It glided a little forward, and its head turned slowly from side to side. Richardson stood up and faced it. The subtle eyes gazed at him, without hostility, without friendship, remote and alien. He looked back, wordlessly calling on the Maker and End of all created energies. Images poured through his brain in an unceasing riot; questions such as Anthony had recounted to him propounded themselves; there seemed to be a million things he might do, and he did none of them. He remembered the Will beyond all the makings; then with a tremendous effort he shut out even that troublesome idea of the Will — an invented word, a mortal thought — and, as far as he could, was not before what was. It had mercy on him; he saw the great snake begin to move again, and then he fainted right away.

When he came to himself he found Dr. Rockbotham in the room, and other people, people who were carrying something out. The doctor, as soon as he discovered that the young man was conscious, came over to him, and was at first discreetly cheerful. But in a few minutes he allowed himself to relax, and said very seriously, “What happened?”

“God knows,” Richardson said, and paused. Then he added, “What was she like?”

Dr. Rockbotham shook his head and — even he — shuddered.

“Dreadful,” he said. “I suppose there’ll have to be a post mortem — and I hate the idea. I never want to see it again.”

“God help her,” Richardson said sincerely, “wherever, after death, she is. It was a dreadful chance that brought her to it. There are enough of her kind about, but the others get off scot-free.”

But his thoughts were elsewhere. He looked round the room; there was no sign of the Power he had seen. The window was wide open at the bottom, and the garden lay beyond — perhaps it had passed upon its way. The end of everything was surely very near. He got to his feet.

“But you must tell me something,” the doctor said. “I was wondering if I ought to call in the police.”

Richardson looked at him, and mentally refused to speak. The Gods who had come to man he felt he might have to meet, but he simply couldn’t explain. He uttered a few words explaining that he had been seized with faintness — which the doctor already knew — and felt he must get home. Somehow he escaped. In the street he remembered the old lady. “Certainly,” he said to himself grimly, “there are other ways of feeling bad besides coming over faint.”

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