The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Thirteen

The Burning House

Smetham next morning found itself more than a little agitated. It was, to begin with, on one side cut off from the outer world; the telephones and telegraphs were down. Even the railway line had been interfered with; fortunately on that side it was a very small railway, a mere branch line. But still, at a certain point the lines had simply disappeared, had apparently just crumbled into dust. The point happened to be about five yards long when it was first discovered, and by the time the railway gang got to it, it was rather more than six. There was a good deal of difficulty too about mending it — though the news of this did not reach the town till later; none of the usual appliances were reliable; they seemed to have none of their proper strength. Steel bent; wood snapped; hammers went awry, for their weight lightened even between the upward swing and the blow. It was all most unusual and very disconcerting; and those whose business or pleasure took them to the station where they found that the little train remained the whole day were thoroughly upset.

But there were others who were disturbed too. The collapse of the houses behind the Tighes’ home was only part of a disturbance that affected a complete arc of the town. In that arc all dissociated buildings had been affected — by wind, by thunder, by a local earthquake, nobody knew how; sheds and garages were found to be broken down and ruinous. Hoardings were down, poles and posts — everything that was not largely used by man and that had not received into it, as matter will, over a long period, part of his more intimate life. The destruction therefore, consistent with its own laws, was inconsistent to uninstructed eyes. A shed where two small boys found continual pleasure in playing and working was left standing; a very much finer summer-house which no-one had wanted or used was found so broken up that it was not much more than a heap of splinters. Strength, though no-one realized it, was being withdrawn from the works of man, for the earth was more and more passing into the circle round the solitary house, and as it passed the Principle of Strength reassumed all of itself which had been used in human labours. Anthony Durrant, at breakfast in the Station Hotel, heard of this and that piece of destruction, and saw it in the light of that greater knowledge which he had received since, in the abyss, he had accepted the challenge of the Eagle. This was the first circle, the extreme outward change which the entrance of man’s world into that other world was producing. Over the coffee and his first cigarette he asked himself what other change was imminent. When everything was drawn farther, into the second circle — silly words, but they had to be used — when Subtlety which was the Serpent began to draw into itself the subtleties of man? A tremor went through him, but he sat on, constraining himself gravely to contemplate the possible result. For the principle of subtlety was double — instinctive and intellectual, and if man’s intellect began to fail, or at least all unprepared and undefended intellect, what dreadful fatuity would take its place! He had a vision of the town full of a crowd of expressionless gaping mindless creatures, physical and mental energy passing out of them. Yet since man was meant to be the balance and pattern of all the Ideas — ah, but he was meant to be! Was he? Setting aside any who had deliberately abandoned themselves to their own desires instead of the passion for truth, for reality, such as those with whom he had fought, still there were those who had unconsciously become lost in one pursuit, such as Mr. Tighe, or who had studied reality for their own purposes — such as Damaris had been. She had been saved by a terrible experience, and by the chance of (he found himself bound to admit it as an unimportant fact) his own devotion to her. But of the others?

He left the problem. He had his own business to attend to. Damaris, whatever her faults, had never been a fool — outside one particular folly — and in the long talk that they had had on the previous evening she had grown more and more clear that her business was to go out into the lanes and fields and see if she could find Quentin. His breath came a little quicker; his body shook for a moment, as he considered her making this adventure in a countryside where such Powers were to be experienced. But he overcame this natural fear. If Damaris felt it to be her duty, a necessity of her new life, she had better go. In every way it would be wiser and greater than for her to crouch over her books again while transmutation was proceeding. These crises of the soul produced their own capacities, and though too often the capacity faded as the crisis passed, it was better to make use of it at once than to find reasons for neglecting it. He had himself half-intended to search for his friend — at first alone, and then in company with Damaris, but another place, though not another quest, had presented itself to him. As he thought of Quentin he found his mind recurring continually to the rooms they shared, to the long discussions, the immortal evenings, experienced reality, eternal knowledge. Even from the ordinary point of view, it was at least possible that the distracted Quentin might have tried to get back to the place he knew so well, perhaps by train if his habits still had power on him, perhaps on foot if they had not. It was at least as likely that Quentin would be there as anywhere, taking refuge amid dear familiarities from his intolerable fear. But Anthony felt that this possibility was not the real reason of his own decision. He felt that there rather than elsewhere could he best serve his friend; his nature go out to him, and his will be ready. For there, in so far as place mattered at all, was the place of the Principle that had held them together? something that, he hoped, was stronger than the lion and subtler than the serpent and more lovely than butterflies, something perhaps that held even the Ideas in their places and made a tender mockery even of the Angelicals. There his being would have the best possibility of knowing where that other being was; and in his new-found union with Damaris the possibility was increased. It was for her to prove her own courage and purpose — he could not help her there; except by accepting it. But if her search went among — not the fields alone but those things which moved in the fields, and if he attended, under the protection of the Eagle, in-not their rooms alone but the place that held their rooms, might not some success be granted, and Quentin be brought safely from the chaos that had fallen on him? And even . . . But the further thought eluded him; some greater possibility flickered in his mind and was gone. Well, that could wait; there was order even in the Divine Hierarchies, and his first business was to catch the earliest possible train to London.

He failed in this because Richardson telephoned just as he was getting up from the breakfast table, and afterwards came immediately round to see him. The tales they each had to recount made no alteration in either of their purposes. Anthony was still clear he had to go to London, and Richardson — smiling a little ironically — proposed to go as usual to his bookshop. They were both in very different ways too far practised in self-discipline and intellectual control not to be content in any crisis, even the most fantastic, to deal as adequately as possible with the next moment. The next moment clearly invited each of them to a definite job, and each of them immediately responded. They shook hands and parted at the door of the hotel, two young men separating pleasantly for the week’s work, two princely seekers after holiness dividing to their lonely individual labours. But as they shook hands they were, each of them, intensely aware of sound and movement in the air about them, though one seemed rather to welcome and one to refuse it; and those who passed either of them in the street threw more than one glance at the intent and noble figure that went vigilantly on its way.

Among those who passed Richardson was Mr. Berringer’s housekeeper. She had spent the Sunday night in Smetham, rather against the will of the male nurse whom Dr. Rockbotham had engaged. But the doctor himself had given her permission when he had been at The Joinings on the Sunday morning, after asking Lorrigan, which was the nurse’s name, whether that wouldn’t be all right. The question so obviously was one of those which the Latin grammar states are introduced by the word “nonne” that the doctor had hardly waited for the affirmative answer which “nonne” expects. What, as a matter of fact, Lorrigan had said sounded itself more like “nonne” than any English word had a right to do. He rather disapproved of having to get his own breakfast, but later on the sight of the supper which the housekeeper had put ready placated him, and they parted on the best of terms, condoling with each other over the increasing heat. Once or twice indeed, after she had gone, Lorrigan thought he had smelt something burning, and had gone round to investigate. But everything had seemed all right.

It was certainly very hot. Standing at the door of the house for a few minutes before going upstairs to the bed that had been made up for him in Berringer’s room, Lorrigan thought to himself that it was partly due to the position of the house. It lay in a much deeper hollow than he had realized, and yet he had known the road well enough for seven or eight years, ever since he had come to Smetham. He had often been along it on his motor-cycle, and he had always thought of it as mounting just past the house in a gentle rise to the slightly higher ridge where the trees were. But to-night as he stood there, looking out, it seemed very different. The hedge looked higher, and much steeper; indeed, all round the house the ground was much higher than he remembered. He looked along the road in the direction of the climbing road, and thought lazily, “It does climb too.” For a wild moment, the house and Mr. Berringer and he all seemed very deep, almost at the bottom of a pit, with ground up about them like walls. There had been less thunder this last day or two, which was fortunate, for it was a creepy house he was in-and he rather wished the housekeeper had not gone. Talk was a useful thing; it kept one steady, he thought, unconsciously repeating Anthony’s “It supports the wings in the air” of the previous day. And there were all sorts of little shiverings and quiverings and flickers — once or twice it had been exactly like a little flame at the edge of his eyes. Patients who felt shiverings and quiverings and saw flames and flashes he was more or less used to. He had once been male nurse for three years to an old gentleman who had a recurring belief that he had been responsible for the Great Fire of London, and who had in consequence at those times fits of deep melancholy and remorse at the deaths he had caused, accompanied by a spasmodic terror of being himself cut off by the Fire. Lorrigan’s own view had been that this gentleman ought to have been put away, but the family couldn’t bring themselves to such extreme measures, so he was relegated to the Dower House and Lorrigan, and books on the higher mathematics in which he was an acknowledged authority. But with all his drawbacks he had been, at his best, a pleasant gentleman, and the house had been away among the South Downs, where everything was much less oppressive. Lorrigan sighed, and went to bed.

In the morning it was, if anything, worse. The sun was blazing down, and nobody came along the road. It had never been a busy road, but it had not, when he had been along it, ever seemed so deserted as it was now. He waited impatiently for Mrs. Portman’s return.

She came about half-past eleven full of the rumours that were going about the town. When he heard of the fall of the telephones Lorrigan went off to try their own, and found indeed that he could not get a reply from the Exchange at Smetham. He came back to her rather gloomily, and interrupted her repetition of her story to ask if she could smell burning. “It’s getting a very peculiar house, this,” he said. “The old man upstairs — well, I don’t mind him; I’m used to them. But all this smell of fire, and things breaking down . . . And dreams. I don’t know when I’ve dreamt as badly as I did last night. It was a regular nightmare. All animals — you wouldn’t believe, Mrs. Portman; I might have been to the Zoo. There was a great lion walking round everywhere . . . I couldn’t get past him — you know how it is in dreams . . . ”

“Why,” said Mrs. Portman, “would you believe it, that’s what my daughter’s little girl was talking about this morning. Out in the garden before breakfast she was, and came running in to say that there must be a circus come to Smetham, for she’d just seen a big lion go by the end of the garden. She couldn’t talk of anything else all breakfast time till her mother shut her up, her father not being very well. He’s a policeman, you know, and he’d been on night duty, and came in all dazed this morning. Couldn’t talk of anything but how lovely something was.”

“There’s not much that’s all that lovely,” Mr. Lorrigan said pessimistically.

“O I don’t know,” Mrs. Portman answered. “I like a bit of colour round myself, but I’m not in it with Jack. He ought to’ve been a painter instead of a policeman, the things he sees in trees and sunsets. I tell him he wouldn’t notice a murder right before his eyes if there was a sunset there too.”

“Sunsets have their place,” said Lorrigan. “Not that I’ve ever seen much in a sunset myself. My Bessie did an essay on sunsets the other day at school, and the things that child put in! I’ve not seen all those colours in a sunset — not for forty years. And anyhow I don’t hold with teaching children to do too much sky gazing; there’s other things that’s more important.”

“That’s so,” Mrs. Portman said, “and if I was going to buy a picture it’d be one of those that have got more to them than just a lot of different colours. I like a picture to have a story in it, something that you can enjoy. I’ve got one upstairs that belonged to my mother —The Last Days of King Charles the First, and I’m sure it used to make me cry to look at it, all so natural with the little children and everything. I tell you, Mr. Lorrigan, I like a picture that makes me feel something.”

“I don’t care for pictures much, anyhow,” Lorrigan answered. “Though, of course, a good lifelike bit of work . . . One of the best I ever saw was the sign of an inn out the other side of the town — that was a lion too: the Red Lion, and anything more natural I never saw. I wonder if I got thinking of it last night.”

“I expect so,” Mrs. Portman said. “Lor’, isn’t it close, Mr. Lorrigan? I could do with a cup of tea after that walk. Will you have a cup too?”

“Well, I don’t mind,” Mr. Lorrigan agreed. “I’ll just have another look at Mr. Berringer while you get your hat off, and then take a turn in the garden till it’s ready.”

“Do,” Mrs. Portman said, and went off to her room. In a few minutes she was downstairs again, and went across to light the gas and put on the kettle for her tea. It would have needed Anthony’s purged eyes to see then what neither she in the kitchen not Lorrigan in the garden could see — the multiplicity of intellectual flame that was leaping and twining all over the house. Some new passion was spreading out through earthly things, another Energy pressed onwards to the moment in which, concerned upon its own business, it should yet take the opportunity of whatever opening into matter might be afforded to it. Mrs. Portman picked up a box of matches, and as the invisible fire arched itself round and over her paused in amused remembrance of her granddaughter’s chatter about the lion. Then she opened it, took out a match, struck it —

In the garden Lorrigan was strolling from the gate back towards the house. A wave of heat struck him, a terrific burst of fire blinded him. He reeled back, shouting incoherently, with his hands to his eyes. When he could open them again, after that violent shock, he saw before him the whole house blazing to heaven. This was no fire spreading from room to room, though his first thought was that the curtains had caught. But from the road to which he had fled, looking dazedly back, he saw not flames breaking out from doors or windows, but now a pillar, now a nest of fire. It soared, it sank, it spread outwards and curved back inwards; the heat and light of the burning struck and hurt him, and he went stumbling farther along the road to escape it. “What’s happened?” he thought stupidly. “What’s she done? Christ, the whole place is alight!” The roar of the fire beat in his ears; he covered them with his hands and blinked out over the fields. And then he remembered his charge.

He faced round, feeling that he ought to do something. But it was evident, even to his ruining intelligence, that nothing could be done. No one could live in that destructive ferocity of flame; both his patient and Mrs. Portman must already have perished. He had better get hold of somebody; the fire brigade, the police — and the telephones were down. Lorrigan felt like crying, his helplessness was obvious and extreme. It wasn’t more than ten minutes since he had been talking to Mrs. Portman in that kitchen about pictures and lions and zoos, and now she and her master were burnt to death, and the house was falling in? “O God . . . ” he exclaimed, “don’t let her come out,” for he had had a moment’s dreadful fear of some burning creature rushing out of that fiery splendour. “O God, kill her, kill her,” he thought unintentionally, “and then put it out.” But God went on concerning Himself with his Deity and that seemed to imply the continuation of the fire.

It was some time later that Lorrigan came racing into the town, and a shorter time later still that the fire brigade, and Dr. Rockbotham, and a number of other people were assembled round the house. So fierce was the heat that they were all kept at a good distance, and the efforts that were made to approach the house closely all failed. The hoses were turned on; streams of water were dashed against the fire. By this time it had been burning for the best part of an hour, and if anything it seemed more violent than before. “You shouldn’t have left him, Lorrigan,” Dr. Rockbotham exclaimed, quite unjustly, in the excitement of the moment.

“No,” said Lorrigan, also excited. “I suppose I ought to have sat by him and been burnt up too. I suppose you pay me for that, don’t you? I suppose . . . ”

The doctor looked at him sharply. “Now steady, steady,” he said. “Of course, you couldn’t tell. I didn’t intend to blame you. I only meant that . . . ” He stopped, aware that he had as a fact meant to blame the nurse, and then resumed, “There, I apologize if I hurt you.”

But Lorrigan’s usual equanimity had vanished. “Coming to me and telling me I ought to have stopped there!” he said. “What d’you mean, hey? What d’you mean?” He caught the doctor’s arm, and shook it fiercely.

“Leave go at once,” Rockbotham exclaimed, shaken out of his usual benignity. “How dare you touch me? Leave go!”

In the general surging of the crowd in the road a new little vortex formed around the two of them.

“Now then, Jack,” a voice said, “don’t you be silly.”

“Ah,” said another voice, “it’s all very fine, blaming a man for not letting himself be burnt! There’s too many treat us that way!”

The doctor looked round. It was a mixed crowd, and part of it wasn’t very nice. Loafers and bullies from Smetham had been attracted by the blaze. Lorrigan still held his arm; another man drove an elbow, as if accidentally, into his side. “Take care,” the doctor exclaimed.

Immediately a sudden fierceness awoke in them. They jolted, thrust, hit at him. His hat was knocked off, and his glasses. He called out. Others in the crowd heard him, looked round, saw what was happening, and came pushing in on one side or the other. In less than five minutes after Rockbotham’s first remark nothing less than a free fight was going on. It was not, perhaps, a serious fight, but it shook the doctor very greatly. People were grunting and snarling at each other all round him; they were behaving, he thought disgustedly, like animals. A couple of constables intervened, and the row quietened down. But though the crowd turned its attention again to the fire the panting and grunting remained, as if indeed some animal rather than human nature was then dominating its members. And over everything went up the roar of the fire.

An hour, two hours, went by. Still the hoses were directed towards the blaze; still the torrents of water fell on it. But when three hours were past, and more — when the afternoon was almost done — when the crowd had changed and multiplied and lessened and multiplied again — still the house burned. At least, presumably it was the house. The Captain of the Fire Brigade talked with the Police Inspector, who suggested that there might be a store of chemicals somewhere in the cellars. Hadn’t Mr. Berringer been a scientific man?

“I suppose it must be something like that,” the Captain said. “But it seems very odd.”

“It’s odd how the flames hide the house,” the Inspector answered. “Generally you can see the walls except for a minute or two here and there. But here you can’t see anything but the fire. And that looks more like a great nest than anything.”

“With a bird in it, I suppose,” the Captain answered, looking irritably at the blaze, and then at his watch. “Why, it’s been going on for five hours and it’s as bad as ever.”

“Ah, well, I daresay you’ll get it under soon,” the Inspector said encouragingly, and moved off.

But when the night fell, that violent and glorious catastrophe was still visible over the countryside. It was burning up through the earth; indeed, the Captain found himself thinking occasionally the base of that fiery pillar expanded, and by midnight the perplexed firemen found that its extreme circle had reached on one side to the middle of the garden, the flames seeming to rise from the ground as if the withered grass and the dry hard ground beneath broke into fire of their own accord. The increasing heat drove the workers back, such of them as were left. For a few had been overcome, and one had been almost blinded by an unexpected outbreak of crimson light, and the idle watchers had disappeared. Not merely night and weariness had drawn these off, but a vague rumour an echo of which reached the Captain himself from the mouth of one of his men. “Did you hear they’re shutting up in the town?”

“What d’you mean — shutting up?” the Captain asked.

“All the pubs are closing, they say,” the man said. “There’s animals going about the streets”— and he added another “they say.”

“It sounds as if it was time the pubs closed,” the Captain muttered. “Don’t talk that blasted rubbish to me. For Christ’s sake look what you’re doing.”

Yet his incredulity would have ceased could he have seen the town as it lay away behind him. The doors were shut, the streets were empty, a terrified populace hid in dark houses behind such protection as they could find. For now here and now there, first one and then another wayfarer had seen forms and images, and fled in terror. Certain courageous folk had heard the rumours, and mocked at them, and gone out, but by midnight these too had come rushing home, and the streets were given up to the moonlight, while all one side of the heavens was filled with the glow of the burning. Under that distant glow, and passing from the moon to the dark and from the dark to the moon, there went all night the subdued sound of mighty creatures. Sceptical eyes looked out from occasional windows, and beheld them: the enormous bulk of the Lion, the coiling smoothness of the Serpent, even, very rarely, the careering figure of the Unicorn. And above them went the never-resting flight of the Eagle, or, if indeed it rested, then it was at some moment when, soaring into its own dominion, it found a nest exalted beyond human sight in the vast mountains of the creation natural to it, where it might repose and contemplate its aeonian wisdom. There among the Andes and Himalayas of the soul, it sank to rest; thence again, so swiftly it renewed its youth, it swept out, and passing upon its holy business, cast from its wings the darkness which is both mortal night and night of the mind. It knew, since it knew all things, the faint sounds of the lesser world that was more and more passing into the place of the Angelicals, but what to it were those sounds, however full of distress they might be? For, as the quivering human creatures knew, the destruction was spreading. It was no longer only neglected sheds and empty houses, posts and palisades, that were falling. An inhabited house crashed in ruins, and screams and moans broke through the night. A little after, in another part of the town, a second fell; and then a third. In the double fear that, even through those barred and shuttered houses, began to spread, there was hinted panic. Men came out to help and caught sight of something and fled, except only those who saw the silver horn and heard the silver hooves of the Angel of their Return; they only, free from fear, toiled to rescue their fellows.

All others, crouched in darkness, waited in terror for death.

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