The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Five

Servile Fear

In the morning however it was Anthony who woke Quentin by entering his room before he was up — it might also be said before he slept, for what sleep he had was rather a sinking into silent terror than into normal repose. Anthony sat down on the bed and took a cigarette from a box on the table.

“Look here,” he said, “I’ve been thinking it all over. What about us both going down again for the week-end, and having a look round?”

Quentin, taken aback, stared at him, and then, “Do you think so?” he asked.

“I think we might as well,” Anthony said. “I should like to see Mr. Tighe again, and find out what he feels, and I should very much like to hear whether anyone else is seeing things. Besides, of course,” he added, “Damaris. But I’d like it a great deal better if you came too.”

As Quentin said nothing he went on, “Don’t you think you might? It wouldn’t be any more tiresome for you there, do you think? And we might, one way or another, get something clear. Do think about it. We’ve talked about ideas often enough, and we should be able to do something much better if we were together.”

Quentin, a little pale, went on thinking; then he looked at Anthony with a smile. “Well, we might try,” he said, “but if the lion is about you will have to save me.”

“God knows what I should do!” Anthony answered, “but you could tell me what you wanted. If I go alone I shall always have to ring you up, and that’ll take time. Imagine me among lions and snakes and butterflies and smells, asking everything to wait while I telephoned. Well, that’s all right. I think I shall go down today — after I’ve made arrangements at the office. I suppose you can’t come till tomorrow? About mid-day or so?”

“If London’s still here,” Quentin said, again faintly smiling. “Let me know where you’re staying.”

“I’ll ring you up here to-night — say about nine,” Anthony answered. “I shan’t do anything but hang round today, and tomorrow we’ll see.”

So the arrangement was carried out, and on the Saturday afternoon the two young men wandered out on to the Berringer road, as Anthony called it. Past the Tighe house, past the sedate public-house at the next corner, and the little Baptist chapel almost at the end of the town, out between the hedges they went, more silent than usual, more intensely alert in feet and eyes. The sun was hot, June was drawing to a rich close.

“And nothing fresh has happened?” Quentin said, after they had for some time exchanged trivialities about nature, the world, philosophy, and art.

“No,” Anthony murmured thoughtfully, “nothing has happened exactly, unless — I don’t really know if it could be called a happening — but Mr. Tighe has given up entomology.”

“But I thought he was so keen!” Quentin exclaimed.

“So he was,” Anthony answered. “That’s what makes it funny. I called on him yesterday — yes, Quentin, I really did call on him— and very tactfully asked him . . . O this and that and how he felt. He was sitting in the garden looking at the sky. So he said he felt very well, and I asked him if he had been out after butterflies during the day. He said, ‘O no, I shan’t do that again.’ I suppose I stared or said something or other, because he looked round at me and said, ‘But I’ve nothing to do with them now.’ Then he said, quite sweetly, ‘I can see now they were only an occupation.’ I said: didn’t he think it might be quite a good idea to have an occupation? and he said: yes, he supposed it might be if you needed it, but he didn’t. So then he went on looking at the sky, and I came away.”

“And Damaris?” Quentin asked.

“O Damaris seemed all right,” Anthony answered evasively. It was true that, in one sense of the words, Damaris had seemed all right. She had been in a state of extreme irritation with her father, and indeed with everybody. People had been calling — Mrs. Rockbotham to see her, Mr. Foster to see her father; she could get no peace. Time was going by, and she was continually being interrupted, and she had in consequence lost touch with the precise relationship of the theory of Pythagoras about number with certain sayings attributed to Abelard’s master William of Champagne. Nobody seemed to have the least idea of the importance of a correct evaluation of the concentric cultural circles of Hellenic and premedieval cosmology. And now if her father were going to hang about the house all day! There appeared to have been a most unpleasant scene that morning between them, when Damaris had been compelled to grasp the fact that Mr. Tighe proposed to abandon practical entomology entirely. She had (Anthony had gathered) asked him what he proposed to do — to which he had replied that there was no need to do anything. She had warned him that she herself must not be interrupted — to which again he had said merely: “No, no, my dear, go on playing, but take care you don’t hurt yourself.” At this Damaris had entirely lost her temper — not that she had said so in so many words, but Anthony quite justly interpreted her ‘I had to speak pretty plainly to him,’ as meaning that.

In consequence he had not been able to do more than hint very vaguely at Mr. Foster’s theories. Theories which were interesting in Plato became silly when regarded as having anything to do with actual occurrences. Philosophy was a subject — her subject; and it would have been ridiculous to think of her subject as getting out of hand. Or her father, for that matter; only he was.

Anthony would have been delighted to feel that she was right; she was, of course, right. But he did uneasily feel that she was a little out of touch with philosophy. He had done his best to train his own mind to regard philosophy as something greater and more important than itself. Damaris, who adopted that as an axiom of speech, never seemed to follow it as a maxim of intellectual behaviour. If philosophies could get out of hand . . . he looked unhappily at the Berringer house as they drew near to it.

But at the gate both he and Quentin exclaimed. The garden was changed. The flowers were withered, the grass was dry and brown; in places the earth showed, hard and cracked. The place looked as if a hot sun had blazed on it for weeks without intermission. Everything living was dead within its borders, and (they noticed) for a little way beyond its borders. The hedges were leafless and brittle; the very air seemed hotter than even the June day could justify. Anthony drew a deep breath.

“My God, how hot it is!” he said.

Quentin touched the gate. “It is hot,” he said. “I didn’t notice it so much when we were walking.”

“No,” Anthony answered. “I don’t, you know, think it was so hot there. This place is beginning”— he had been on the point of saying “to terrify me,” when he remembered Quentin and changed it into “to seem quite funny.” His friend however took no notice even of this; he was far too occupied in maintaining an apparently casual demeanour, of which his pallid cheeks, quick breathing, and nervous movements showed the strain. Anthony turned round and leant against the gate with his back to the house.

“It looks quiet and ordinary enough,” he said.

The fields stretched up before them, meadow and cornfield in a gentle slope; along the top of the rising ground lay a series of groups of trees. The road on their left ran straight on for some quarter of a mile, then it swept round towards the right and itself climbed the hill, which it crossed beyond the last fragments of the scattered wood. The house by which they stood was indeed almost directly in the middle of a circular dip in the countryside. In one of the fields a number of sheep were feeding. Anthony’s eyes rested on them.

“They don’t seem to have been disturbed,” he said.

“What do you really think about it all?” Quentin asked suddenly. “It’s all nonsense, isn’t it?”

Anthony answered thoughtfully. “I should think it was all nonsense if we hadn’t both thought we saw the lion — and if I and Damaris’s father hadn’t both thought we saw the butterflies. But I really can’t see how to get over that.”

“But is the world slipping?” Quentin exclaimed. “Look at it. Is it?”

“No, of course not,” Anthony said. “But — I don’t want to be silly, you know — but, if we were to believe what the Foster fellow said, it wouldn’t be that kind of slipping anyhow. It’d be more like something behind coming out into the open. And as I got him, all the more quickly when there are material forms to help it. The lioness was the first chance, and I suppose the butterflies were the next easiest — the next thing at hand.”

“What about birds?” Quentin asked.

“I thought of them,” Anthony said, “and — look here, we’d better talk it out, so I’ll tell you — It’s a minor matter, and I daresay I shouldn’t have noticed them, but as a matter of fact, I haven’t seen or heard any birds round here at all.”

Quentin took this calmly. “Well, we don’t notice them much, do we?” he said. “And what about the sheep?”

“The sheep I give you,” Anthony answered. “Either Foster’s mad, or else there must be something to explain that. Perhaps there isn’t an Archetypal Sheep.” His voice was steady, and he smiled, but the mild jest fell very flat.

“And what,” Quentin asked, “do you think of doing?”

Anthony turned to face him. “I think you’ve probably seen it too,” he said. “I’m going to do my best to find that lion.”

“Why?” the other asked.

“Because — if it were true — we must meet it,” Anthony said, “and I will have a word in the meeting.”

“You do believe it,” Quentin said.

“I can’t entirely disbelieve it without refusing to believe in ideas,” Anthony answered, “and I can’t do that. I can’t go back on the notion that all these abstractions do mean something important to us. And mayn’t they have a way of existing that I didn’t know? Haven’t we agreed about the importance of ideas often enough?”

“But ideas —” Quentin began, and stopped. “You’re right, of course,” he added. “If this is so we must be prepared — if we meant anything.”

“And as we certainly meant something —” Anthony said, relaxing to his former position. “My God, look!”

Up on the top of the rise the lion was moving. It was passing slowly along among the trees, now a little this side, now hidden by the trunks — or partly hidden. For its gigantic and golden body, its enormous head and terrific mane, were of too vast proportions to be hidden. It moved with a kind of stately ferocity, its eyes fixed in front of it, though every now and then its head turned one way or the other, in an awful ease. Once its eyes seemed to pass over the two young men, but if it saw them it ignored them, and proceeded slowly upon its own path. Half terrified, half attracted, they gazed at it.

Quentin moved suddenly, “O let’s get away!”

Anthony’s hand closed on his arm. “No,” he said, though his voice shook, “we’re going up that road to meet it. Or else I shall never be able to speak of ideas and truths again. Come along.”

“I daren’t,” Quentin muttered shrinking.

“But what’s lucidity then?” Anthony asked. “Let’s be as quick as we can. For if that is what is in me, then I may be able to control it; and if not —”

“Yes, if not —” Quentin cried out.

“Then we will see what a Service revolver will do,” Anthony answered, putting his hand in the pocket of his loose coat. “One way or the other. Come on.”

Quentin moved unhappily, but he did not refuse. Their eyes still set on the monster, they left the gate and went on along the road; and up on the ridge it continued its own steady progress. The trees however after a few minutes shut it out of their sight, and even when they came round the curve in the road and began to move up the gentle rise they did not again see it. This added to the strain of expectation they both felt, and as they stepped on Quentin exclaimed suddenly: “Even if it’s what you say, how do you know you were meant to see it? We’re only men — how should we be meant to look at — these things?”

“The face of God . . . ” Anthony murmured. “Well, even now perhaps I’d as soon die that way as any. But Tighe didn’t die when he saw the butterfly, nor we when we saw it before.”

“But it’s madness to go like this and look for it,” Quentin said. “I daren’t, that’s the truth, if you want it. I daren’t. I can’t.” He stood still, trembling violently.

“I don’t know that I dare exactly,” Anthony said, also pausing. “But I shall. What the devil’s that?”

It was not the form of the lion but the road some little distance in front of them at which he was staring. For across it, almost where it topped the rise and disappeared down the other side, there passed a continuous steady ripple. It seemed to be moving crosswise; wave after gentle wave followed each other from the fields on one side to the fields opposite; they could see the disturbed dust shaken off and up, and settling again only to be again disturbed. The movement did not stop at the road-side, it seemed to pass on into the fields, and be there lost to sight. The two young men stood staring.

“The damn road’s moving!” Anthony exclaimed, as if driven to unwilling assent.

Quentin began to laugh, as he had laughed that other evening, hysterically, madly. “Quite right,” he shrieked in the midst of his laughter, “quite right, Anthony. The road’s moving: didn’t you know it would? It’s scratching its own back or something. Let’s help it, shall we?”

“Don’t be a bloody fool,” Anthony cried to him. “Stop it, Quentin, before I knock you silly.”

“Ha!” said Quentin with another shriek, “I’ll show you what’s silly. It isn’t us! it’s the world! The earth’s mad, didn’t you know? All mad underneath. It pretends to behave properly, like you and me, but really it’s as mad as we are! And now it’s beginning to break out. Look, Anthony, we’re the first to see the earth going quite, quite mad. That’s your bright idea, that’s what you’re running uphill to see. Wait till you feel it in you!”

He had run a few steps on as he talked, and now paused with his head tossed up, his feet pirouetting, his mouth emitting fresh outbursts of laughter. Anthony felt his own steadiness beginning to give way. He looked up at the sky and the strong afternoon sun — in that at least there was as yet no change. High above him some winged thing went through the air; he could not tell what it was but he felt comforted to see it. He was not entirely alone, it seemed; the pure balance of that distant flight entered into him as if it had been salvation. It was incredible that life should sustain itself by such equipoise, so lightly, so dangerously, but it did, and darted onward to its purpose so. His mind and body rose to the challenging revelation; the bird, whatever it was, disappeared in the blue sky in a moment, and Anthony, curiously calmed, looked back at the earth in front of him. Across the road the movement was still passing, but it seemed smaller, and even while he looked it had ceased. Still and motionless the road stretched in front of him, and though his blood was running cold his eyes were quiet as he turned them on his friend.

Quentin jerked his head. “You think it’s stopped, don’t you?” he jeered. “You great fool, wait, only wait! I haven’t told you, but I’ve known it a long time. I’ve heard it when I lay awake at night, the earth chuckling away at its imbecile jokes. It’s slobbering over us now. O you’re going to find out things soon! Wait till it scratches you. Haven’t you felt it scratching you when you thought about that woman, you fool? When you can’t sleep for thinking of her? and the earth scratches you again? Ho, and you didn’t know what it was. But I know.”

Anthony looked at him long and equably. “You know, Quentin,” he said, “you do have the most marvellous notions. When I think that I really know you I get almost proud. The beauty of it is that for all I know you’re right, only if you are there’s nothing for us to discuss. And though I don’t say there is, I insist on behaving as if there was. Because I will not believe in a world where you and I can’t talk.” He came a step nearer and added: “Will you? It’ll be an awful nuisance for me if you do.”

Quentin had stopped pirouetting and was swinging to and fro on his toes. “Talk!” he said uncertainly. “What’s the good of talking when the earth’s mad?”

“It supports the wings in the air,” Anthony answered. “Come along and support.”

He tucked his arm into his friend’s. “But perhaps for this afternoon —” he began, and paused, arrested by the other’s face. Quentin had looked back over his shoulder, and his eyes were growing blind with terror. Sense and intelligence deserted them; Anthony saw and swung round. By the side of the road, almost where the ripple had seemed to pass over, there appeared the creature they had set out to seek. It was larger and mightier than when they had seen it before — and, comparatively close as they now were, they fell back appalled by the mere effluence of strength that issued from it. It was moving like a walled city, like the siege-towers raised against Nineveh or Jerusalem; each terrible paw, as it set it down, sank into the firm ground as if into mud, but was plucked forth without effort; the movement of its mane, whenever it mightily turned its head, sent reverberations of energy through the air, which was shaken into wind by that tossed hair. Anthony’s hand rested helplessly on his revolver, but he could not use it — whether this were mortal lion or no, he must take his chance, its being to his exposed being. He had challenged the encounter, and now it was upon him, and all the strength of his body was flowing out of him: he was beginning to tremble and gasp. He no longer had hold of Quentin, nor was indeed aware of him; a faintness was taking him — perhaps this was death, he thought, and then was suddenly recalled to something like consciousness by hearing a shot at his side.

Quentin had snatched the revolver from him and was firing madly at the lion, screaming, “There! there! there!” as he did so, screaming in a weakness that seemed to lay him appallingly open to the advance of that great god — for it looked no less — whenever it should choose to crush him. The noise sounded as futile as the bullets obviously proved, and the futility of the outrage awoke in Anthony a quick protest.

“Don’t!” he cried out, “you’re giving in. That’s not the way to rule; that’s not within you.” To keep himself steady, to know somehow within himself what was happening, to find the capacity of his manhood even here — some desire of such an obscure nature stirred in him as he spoke. He felt as if he were riding against some terrific wind; he was balancing upon the instinctive powers of his spirit; he did not fight this awful opposition but poised himself within and above it. He heard vaguely the sound of running feet and knew that Quentin had fled, but he himself could not move. It was impossible now to help others; the overbearing pressure was seizing and stifling his breath; and still as the striving force caught him he refused to fall and strove again to overpass it by rising into the balance of adjusted movement. “If this is in me I reach beyond it,” he cried to himself again, and felt a new-come freedom answer his cry. A memory — of all insane things — awoke in him of the flying he had done in the last year of the war; it seemed as if again he looked down on a wide stretch of land and sea, but no human habitations were there, only forest, and plain, and river, and huge saurians creeping slowly up from the waters, and here and there other giant beasts coming into sight for a moment and then disappearing. Another flying thing went past below him — a hideous shape that was a mockery of the clear air in which he was riding, riding in a machine that, without his control, was now sweeping down towards the ground. He was plunging towards a prehistoric world; a lumbering vastidity went over an open space far in front, and behind it his own world broke again into being through that other. There was a wild minute in which the two were mingled; mammoths and dinotheria wandered among hedges of English fields, and in that confused vision he felt the machine make easy landing, run, and come to a stop. Yet it couldn’t have been a machine, for he was no longer in it; he hadn’t got out, but he was somehow lying on the ground, drawing deep breaths of mingled terror and gratitude and salvation at last. In a recovered peace he moved, and found that he was actually stretched at the side of the road; he moved again and sat up.

There was no sign of the lion, nor of Quentin. He got to his feet; all the countryside lay still and empty, only high above him a winged something still disported itself in the full blaze of the sun.

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