The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Three

The Coming Of The Butterflies

Anthony shook his head reproachfully at Damaris over the coffee cups.

“You know,” he said, “if I were a sub-editor on anything but a distinguished literary paper, I should say you were playing with me — playing fast and loose.”

“Don’t be absurd, Anthony,” Damaris answered.

“I come and I go,” Anthony went on, “and you will and you won’t. And —”

“But I’ve told you what I will,” Damaris said. “I’m not sure whether you and I could make a success of marriage. And anyhow I won’t think about anything of the kind till I’ve got my degree. Of course, if you think more of yourself than of me —”

“Well, naturally I do,” Anthony interrupted. “Who doesn’t? Am I a saint or an Alexandrian Gnostic? Don’t let’s ask rhetorical questions, darling.”

“I’m not doing anything of the kind,” Damaris said, coldly. “But you must be willing to wait a little while. I’m not sure of myself.”

“It’s all you are sure of — besides Abelard,” Anthony said. “And with you, that covers everything else.”

“I think you’re rather unkind,” Damaris answered. “We both like each other —”

“Dearest, I don’t like you a bit,” Anthony interrupted again. “I think you’re a very detestable, selfish pig and prig. But I’m often wildly in love with you, and so I see you’re not. But I’m sure your only chance of salvation is to marry me.”

“Really, Anthony!” Damaris got up from the table. “Chance of salvation, indeed! And from what, I should like to know?”

“Nobody else,” Anthony went on, “sees you as you are. Nobody else will give you such a difficult and unpleasant time as I do. You’ll never be comfortable, but you may be glorious. You’d better think over it.”

Damaris said nothing. Anthony, it was clear, was in one of his difficult fits; and if it hadn’t been for The Two Camps—. There was a short silence, then he too stood up.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve not been eaten by the lion, and I’ve been mauled by the lioness. I think I will now go and look for the other lioness.”

Damaris half-turned and smiled at him over her shoulder.

“Do I maul you?” she asked. “Am I a pig and a prig — just because I like my work?”

Anthony gazed at her solemnly. “You are the Sherbet of Allah, and the gold cup he drinks it out of,” he said slowly. “You are the Night of Repose and the Day of Illumination. You are, incidentally, a night with a good deal of rain and a day with a nasty cold wind. But that may be merely Allah’s little game.”

“I hate being bad friends with you,” Damaris said, with perfect truth, and gave him her hand.

“But!”, said Anthony, as he kissed it, “hate being good friends. Besides, I don’t think you could be.”

“What, a bad friend?”

“No, a good one,” Anthony said, almost sadly. “It’s all right, I suppose; it isn’t your fault — or at least it wasn’t. You were made like it by the Invisibles that created you.”

“Why are you always so rude to me, Anthony?” she asked, as wistfully as she thought desirable, but keeping rather on the side of intellectual curiosity than of hurt tenderness.

“I shall be ruder to the other lioness,” he said. “It’s only a way of saying, ‘Hear thou my protestation’— and making quite sure you do.”

“But what do you mean — look for the lioness?” Damaris asked. “You’re not anxious to find it, are you?”

Anthony smiled at her. “Well, you want to work,” he said, “and I could do with a walk. And so, one way and another —” He drew her a little closer to him, but as she moved they both suddenly paused. There struck momentarily into their nostrils — what Damaris recognized and Anthony didn’t — a waft of the horrible stench that had assailed her on the previous night in the house where Mr. Berringer lay insensible. It was gone in a second or two, but to each of them it was obvious that the other had smelt it.

“My God!” Anthony said involuntarily, as Damaris shuddered and threw back her head. “What’s the matter with your drains?”

“Nothing,” Damaris said sharply. “But what — did you smell something?”

Smell,” Anthony exclaimed. “It was like a corpse walking. Or a beast out of a jungle. What on earth is it?” He sniffed experimentally. “No, it’s gone. It must be your drains.”

“It isn’t our drains,” Damaris said crossly. “I smelt it at that house last night, only not nearly so strongly; but how it got here! It can’t be the frock — I wasn’t wearing it. How horrible!”

They were standing staring at one another, and she shook herself abruptly, then, recovering her normal remoteness, “I shall go and have a bath,” she said. It occurred to her that the smell might be, in some way, clinging to her hair, but she wasn’t going to admit to Anthony that anything about her could be even remotely undesirable, so she ended —“It makes one feel to need it.”

“It does,” Anthony said. “I suppose the lioness —”

“In a town — unseen? My dear Anthony!”

He looked out of the window at the street and the houses opposite. People were going by; a car stopped; a policeman came into sight. “Why, no,” he said, “I suppose not. Well — it’s funny. Anyhow, I’m off now. Goodbye, and do think about salvation.”

“Goodbye,” she said. “Thank you for coming, and if I ever seem to need it I will. But I’ve read a good deal about salvation, you know, in all those tiresome texts of one sort and another.”

“Yes,” Anthony answered, as they came into the hall. “Reading isn’t perhaps — the texts are not quite the ritual. Send for me if you want me at any time. I love you. Goodbye.”

He came into the street, frowning, though at what he hardly knew. It was usually at Damaris. He was on these visits provoked by her ignorance of his intelligence; he was provoked even more deeply by her ignorance of his authority over himself. Walking slowly away, he had often asked himself whether — in that momentary opportunity of choice which recurrently presented itself to his mind — he ought not so to exercise it as to turn his preoccupation from her. Only he did not see what good would be done, assuming that he could and did. She thought herself so intellectual and scholarly and capable — and so she was. But she was also an absurd, tender, uncertain little thing, with childish faults of greediness and conceit, and Anthony felt strongly that no one except himself was likely to recognize the childishness. They all took her at her own valuation, and some liked her and some disliked her. But to him she so often seemed like a child with its face against the window-pane, looking for the rain to stop so that the desired satisfaction might arrive. Her learning, her articles, her doctorate — and the picnic would be ended, and she would be fortunate if she were not, like most people, tired and cross and unhappy before the end of the day. Perhaps then he could be really of use — good. And if he chose to do it, it was his business. So on the whole he thought that Authority — which meant his decision — was on the side of going on. Only then Authority must control his own mental and physical irritations a little better. Self-reverence was absurd, self-knowledge was hopeless; self-control — perhaps a little more. . . .

He switched his thoughts on to another track. For the past forty hours Quentin and he had discussed, whenever they had been together in the rooms they shared in Notting Hill, little but the mysterious business of Tuesday night. They had gone over every incident without result. Lionesses didn’t change into lions; nor did lions appear on small country lawns. But then what had happened? Had they been under some sort of hypnotism? Who was this very odd Mr. Berringer, in whose garden lions leapt out of nothing and who (he had gathered from Damaris) went off into reputed trances? Quentin had been almost terrified ever since, poor fellow! He seemed to think one or other of the beasts was on his track. And now this tale of a woman’s hysterics and a crowned snake; and this horrible smell that had penetrated into the Tighes’ dining room. Of course, that a woman should be upset — of course, that the drains should go wrong. But it was the other thing that held his concern. He had felt, it seemed to him now, a curious fascination as he gazed at that immense and royal beast — not terror at all; he had for an instant been almost inclined to go out and meet it. But what about the lioness? Well — there was no getting away from it — the lioness had just vanished, whatever people with guns might say. Vanished.

Revolving alternately the possibility of a lioness being changed into a lion, and of Damaris being converted to humility and love, he walked on along the road into which he and Quentin had turned two days earlier, until he had passed the cross-roads and drawn near to the house of the meeting. Why he was going here he wasn’t a bit clear, unless — which seemed silly — it were on the chance of seeing the lion again. His mind recalled it as it had stood there: majestic, awful, complete, gazing directly in front of it, with august eyes. And huge — huger than any lion Anthony had ever seen or dreamt of. The lions he had seen had been a kind of unsatisfactory yellow, but this in spite of the moonlight had been more like gold, with a terrific and ruddy mane covering its neck and shoulders. A mythical, an archetypal lion.

By the gate, when he reached the house, were two men; a car stood by. One of the men was Mr. Tighe, complete with the paraphernalia of active entomology; the other was a stranger who, as Anthony came up, got into his car and drove off. Mr. Tighe exclaimed with pleasure as he recognized Anthony, and shook hands.

“And what brings you down this way?” he asked happily.

“O— things!” Anthony answered. He suspected that Mr. Tighe would take this to mean Damaris, but he didn’t mind that. Mr. Tighe and he had, though they never spoke of it, a common experience. Damaris treated her father’s hobby and her lover’s heart with equal firmness, and made her profit out of both of them. “Lionesses don’t keep you from your butterflies?”

“They seem to think it’s gone farther away. I don’t suppose it would hurt me,” Mr. Tighe said. “And even if it did — when I think of the number of butterflies I’ve caught — I should feel it was only fair. Tit for tat, you know. The brutes — if you can call a butterfly a brute — getting a little of their own back. They deserve to.”

“In England perhaps,” Anthony allowed, “but do you think altogether?” He liked to talk to Mr. Tighe, and was content for a few minutes to lean on the gate and chat. “Haven’t the animals had it a good deal their own way on the earth?”

The other shook his head. “Think of the great monsters,” he said. “The mammoth and the plesiosaurus and the sabre-toothed tiger. Think of what butterflies must have been once, what they are now in the jungles. But they will pass with the jungles. Man must conquer, but I should feel a sympathy with the last campaign of the brutes.”

“I see — yes,” Anthony said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. Do you think the animals will die out?”

“Perhaps,” Tighe said. “When we don’t want them for transport — or for food — what will be left to them but the zoos? The birds and the moths, I suppose, will be the last to go. When all the trees are cut down.”

“But,” objected Anthony, “all the trees won’t be cut down. What about forestry and irrigation and so on?”

“O,” Mr. Tighe said, “there may be tame forests, with artificially induced butterflies. That will be only a larger kind of zoo. The real thing will have passed.”

“And even if they do,” Anthony asked, “will man have lost anything very desirable? What after all has a lioness to show us that we cannot know without her? Isn’t all real strength to be found within us?”

“It may be,” Mr. Tighe answered. “It may be that man will have other enemies and other joys — better perhaps. But the older ones were very lovely.”

They ceased speaking, and remained leaning on the gate in silence. Anthony’s eyes, passing over the garden, remained fixed where, two nights before, he had thought he saw the form of a lion. It seemed to him now, as he gazed, that a change had taken place. The smooth grass of the lawn was far less green than it had been, and the flowers in the beds by the house walls, on either side of the door, were either dying or already withered. Certainly he had not been in a state to notice much, but there had been left with him a general impression of growth and colour. Neither growth nor colour were now there: all seemed parched. Of course, it was hot, but still. . . .

There was a sudden upward sweep of green and orange through the air in front of him: he blinked and moved. As he recovered himself he saw, with startled amazement, that in the centre of the garden, almost directly above the place where he had seen the lion, there floated a butterfly. But — a butterfly! It was a terrific, colossal butterfly, it looked as if it were two feet or more across from wing-tip to wing-tip. It was tinted and coloured with every conceivable brightness; green and orange predominating. It was moving upward in spiral flutterings, upward to a certain point, from which it seemed directly to fall close to the ground, then again it began its upward sweep, and again hovered and fell. Of the two men it seemed to be unaware; lovely and self-sufficient it went on with its complex manoeuvres in the air. Anthony, after a few astonished minutes, took his eyes from it, and looked about him, first with a general gaze at all his surroundings, then more particularly at Mr. Tighe. The little man was pressed against the gate, his mouth slightly open, his eyes full of plenary adoration, his whole being concentrated on the perfect symbol of his daily concern. Anthony saw that it was no good speaking to him. He looked back at the marvel in time to see, from somewhere above his own head, another brilliancy — but much smaller — flash through the air, almost as if some ordinary butterfly had hurled itself towards its more gigantic image. And another followed it, and another, and as Anthony, now thoroughly roused, sprang up and aside, to see the better, he beheld the air full of them. Those of which he had caught sight were but the scattered first comers of a streaming host. Away across the fields they came, here in thick masses, there in thinner lines, white and yellow, green and red, purple and blue and dusky black. They were sweeping round, in great curving flights; mass following after mass, he saw them driving forward from far away, but not directly, taking wide distances in their sweep, now on one side, now on another, but always and all of them speeding forward towards the gate and the garden beyond. Even as a sudden new rush of aerial loveliness reached that border he turned his head, and saw a cloud of them hanging high above the butterfly of the garden, which rushed up towards them, and then, carrying a whirl of lesser iridescent fragilities with it, precipitated itself down its steep descent; and as it swept, and hovered, and again mounted, silent and unresting, it was alone. Alone it went soaring up, alone to meet another congregation of its hastening visitors, and then again multitudinously fell, and hovered; and again alone went upward to the tryst.

Bewildered and distracted, Anthony caught his companion’s arm. Mr. Tighe was by now almost hanging to the gate, his hands clutching frenziedly to the topmost bar, his jaws working. Noises were coming from his mouth; the sweat stood in the creases of his face. He gobbled at the soft-glowing vision; he uttered little cries and pressed himself against the bars; his knees were wedged between them, and his feet drawn from the ground in the intensity of his apprehension. And over him faster and thicker the great incursion passed, and the air over the garden was filled with butterflies, streaming, rising, sinking, hovering, towards their centre, and farther now than Anthony’s eyes could see the single host of all that visitation rose and fell, only whenever he saw it fall towards the ground, it turned upwards in a solitary magnificence and whenever, having risen, it dropped again, it went encircled by innumerable tiny bodies and wings.

Credulous, breathless, he gazed, until after times unreckoned had passed, there seemed to be a stay. Lesser grew the clouds above; smaller the flights that joined them. Now there were but a score and now but twelve or ten — now only three tardy dancers waited above for the flight of their vision; and as again it rose, but one — coming faster than all the rest, reaching its strange assignation as it were at the last permitted moment, joining its summoning lord as it rose for the last time, and falling with it; and then the great butterfly of the garden floated idly in the empty air, and the whole army of others had altogether vanished from sight, and from knowledge. It also after a short while rose, curvetting, passed upwards towards the roof of the house, settled there for a moment, a glowing splendour upon the red tiles, swept beyond it, and disappeared.

Anthony moved and blinked, took a step or two away, looked round him, blinked again, and turned back to Mr. Tighe. He was about to speak, but, seeing the other man’s face, he paused abruptly. The tears were running down it; as his hands released the bars Anthony saw that he was trembling all over; he stumbled and could not get his footing upon the road. Anthony caught and steadied him.

“O glory, glory,” Mr. Tighe said. “O glory everlasting!”

Anthony said nothing; he couldn’t begin to think of anything to say. Mr. Tighe, apparently collecting himself, went an unconscious pace or two on, and stopped.

“O that I should see it!” he said again. “O glory be to it!” He wiped away his tears with his knuckles, and looked back at the garden. “O the blessed sight,” he went on. “And I saw it. O what have I done to deserve it?”

“What . . . what do you think . . . ” Anthony desisted, his companion was so obviously not listening. Mr. Tighe in a little run went back to the gate, and bobbed half across it, making inarticulate murmurs. These gradually ceased, and, pulling himself upright, he remained for a few minutes gazing devoutly at the garden. Then with a deep sigh he turned to face Anthony.

“Well,” he said normally, “I suppose I ought to be getting back. Which way are you going?”

“I think I’ll come back with you,” Anthony answered. “I don’t feel capable of walking on as I meant to. Besides,” he added diffidently, “I should be very much obliged to you if you could explain this.”

Mr. Tighe picked up his net, which was lying on the road, patted himself here and there, gave a final beatific glance at the garden, put his cap straight, and began to walk on. “Well, as to explaining,” he said doubtfully, “I couldn’t tell you anything you don’t know.”

“It seems to me someone ought to be able to tell me quite a lot I don’t know,” Anthony murmured, but Mr. Tighe only answered, “I always knew they were real, but to think I should see them.”

“See them?” Anthony ventured.

“See the kingdom and the power and the glory,” Mr. Tighe answered. “O what a day this has been!” He looked round at the tall young man pacing by his side. “You know, I did believe it.”

“I am quite sure you did,” Anthony answered gravely. “I wish you’d believe as well, Mr. Tighe, that I only want to understand, if I can, what it seems to you happened over there. Because I can’t think that I really saw a lot of butterflies vanishing entirely. But that was what it looked like.”

“Did it now?” Mr. Tighe said. “Well, but the thing is — You see, it proved they were real, and I always believed that. Damaris doesn’t.”

“No,” Anthony agreed, with a doubtful smile, “Damaris probably doesn’t — whatever you mean by real. But she will.”

“Will she?” Mr. Tighe replied, with an unexpected scepticism. “Well perhaps . . . one of these days.”

“If there is any reality,” Anthony said vigorously, “then Damaris shall jolly well know it, if I have anything to do with her. Wouldn’t she like to hear me say so, bless her for a self-absorbed little table-maker. But about this reality of yours —”

Mr. Tighe seemed to make an effort or two at phrases, but presently he gave it up. “It’s no good,” he said apologetically; “if you didn’t see it, it’s no good.”

“I saw clouds and clouds of butterflies, or I thought I did, all just disappearing,” Anthony repeated. “And that monstrous one in the middle.”

“Ah, don’t call it that,” the older man protested. “That . . . O that!”

He abandoned speech in a subdued rapture; and in a despair at making anything of anything Anthony followed his example. Something very queer seemed to be going on at that house in the country road. The lion — and the butterflies — and the tale Damaris had, with apparent laughter and real indignation, told him of Miss Wilmot and a crowned snake — and the stench she had known there — and Mr. Berringer’s curious collapse . . .

“How is this Mr. Berringer?” he asked suddenly.

“That was Dr. Rockbotham you saw with me,” Tighe answered. “He said there was no change. But he didn’t give me a very clear idea of what was wrong. He said something about an intermittent suspension of the conscious vital faculties, but it was all very obscure.”

“Well,” Anthony said, as they reached the road leading to the station, “I don’t think I’ll come back with you. A little silent meditation, I fancy, is what I need.” He looked seriously at his companion. “And you?”

“I am going to look at my butterflies, and recollect everything we saw,” Mr. Tighe answered. “It’s the only thing I can do. I was always certain they were true.”

He shook hands and walked quickly away. Anthony stood and watched him. “And what in God’s own most holy name,” he asked himself, “does the man mean by that? But he’s believed it all along anyhow. O darling, O Damaris my dear, whatever will you do if one day you find out that Abelard was true?”

Half sadly, he shook his head after Mr. Tighe’s retreating figure, and then wandered off towards the station.

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