Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter One

Encountering Darkness

Roger Ingram’s peroration broke over the silent dining hall: “He and such as he are one with the great conquerors, the great scientists, the great poets; they have all of them cried of the unknown: ‘I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms’.”

He sat down amid applause, directed not to him but to the subject of his speech. It was at a dinner given by the Geographical Faculty of the University of London to a distinguished explorer just back from South America. The explorer’s health had been proposed by the Dean of the Faculty, and the Professor of Tropical Geography had been intended to second it. Unfortunately the Professor had gone down with influenza that very day, and Roger had been hastily made to take his place. The other geographical professors, though vocationally more suitable, were both learned and low-voiced, as also were their public addresses. The Dean had refused to subject his distinguished guests, including the explorer, to their instructive whispers. Roger might not be a geographer, but he could make a better speech, and he belonged to the University if to a different faculty, being Professor of Applied Literature. This was a new Chair, endowed beneficently by a rich Canadian who desired at once to benefit the Mother Country and to recall her from the by-ways of pure art to the highroad of art as related to action. Roger had been invited from a post in a Northern University to fill the Chair, largely on the strength of his last book, which was called “Persuasive Serpents: studies in English Criticism”, and had been read with admiration by twenty-seven persons and with complete misunderstanding by four hundred and eighty-two. Its theme, briefly, was that most English critics had at all times been wholly and entirely wrong in their methods and aims, and that criticism was an almost undiscovered art, being a final austere harmony produced by the purification of literature from everything alien, which must still exist in the subjects of most prose and poetry. However, the salary of the Chair of Applied Literature had decided him to give an example of it in his own person, and he had accepted.

He lent an ear, when the toast had been drunk, to his wife’s “Beautiful, Roger: he loved it”, and to Sir Bernard Travers’ murmured “Hug?”

“I know,” he said; “you wouldn’t hug it. You’d ask it to a light but good dinner and send it away all pale and comfortable. I was good, wasn’t I, Isabel? A little purple, but pleasing purple. Pleasing purple for pleased people — that’s me after dinner.” He composed himself to listen.

The explorer, returning thanks, was not indisposed to accept literally the compliments which had been offered him. He touched on ordinary lives, on the conditions of ordinary lives, on the ordinary office clerk, and on the difference between such a man and himself. He painted a picture of South America in black and scarlet; Roger remarked to his wife in a whisper that crude scarlet was the worst colour to put beside rich purple. He enlarged on the heroism of his companions with an under-lying suggestion that it was largely maintained by his own. He made a joke at the expense of Roger’s quotation, saying that he would never apply “for a divorce or even a judicial separation from the bride Mr. Ingram has found me.” Roger gnashed his teeth and smiled back politely, muttering “He isn’t worth Macaulay and I gave him Shakespeare.” He would, in short, have been a bore, had he not been himself.

At last he sat down. Sir Bernard, politely applauding, said: “Roger, why are the English no good at oratory?”

“Because — to do the fool justice — they prefer to explore,” Roger said. “You can’t be a poet and an orator too: it needs a different kind of consciousness.”

Sir Bernard left off applauding; he said: “Roger why are the English so good at oratory?”

“No,” Roger said, “anything in reason, but not that. They aren’t, you know.”

“Need that prevent you finding a reason why they are?” Sir Bernard asked.

“Certainly not,” Roger answered, “but it’d prevent you believing it. I wish I were making all the speeches to-night; I’m going to be bored. Isabel, shall we go?”

“Rather not,” Isabel said. “They’re going to propose the health of the guests. I’m a guest. Mr. Nigel Considine will reply. Who’s Mr. Nigel Considine?”

“A rich man, that’s all I know,” said her husband. “He gave a collection of African images to the anthropological school, and endowed a lectureship on — what was it? — on Ritual Transmutations of Energy. As a matter of fact, I fancy there was some trouble about it, because he wanted one man in it and the University wanted another. They didn’t know anything about his man.”

“And what did they know of their own?” Sir Bernard put in.

“They knew he’d been at Birmingham or Leeds or somewhere — all quite proper,” Roger answered, “and had written a book on the marriage rites of the indigenous Caribs or some such people. He wasn’t married himself, and he’d never been a Carib — at least not so far as was known. Considine’s man was a native of Africa, so the Dean was afraid he might start ritually transmuting energy in the lecture-room.”

“Was Mr. Considine annoyed?” Isabel asked.

“Apparently not, as he’s here to-night,” Roger answered. “Unless he’s going to get his own back now. But I never met him, and never got nearer to him than his collection of images.” His voice became more serious, “They were frightfully impressive.”

“The adjective being emphatic or colloquial?” Sir Bernard asked, and was interrupted by the health of the guests. He was a little startled to find that he himself was still considered important enough to be mentioned by name in the speech that proposed it. He had, in fact, been a distinguished figure in the medical world of his day: he had written a book on the digestive organs which had become a classic, in spite of the ironic humour with which he always spoke of it. He had attended the stomachs of High Personages, and had retired from active life only the year before, after accepting a knighthood with an equally serious irony.

Mr. Nigel Considine, on behalf of the guests, thanked their hosts. The chief of those guests, the guest of honour, of honour in actual truth, had already spoken. The intellectual value of the journey which they had celebrated was certainly very high, and very valuable to the scientific knowledge of the world which was so rapidly growing. “Yet,” the full voice went on, “yet, if I hesitated at all at the view which the most prominent guest to-night took of his own fine achievement”— Roger’s eyes flashed up and down again —“it would have been over one implication which he seemed to make. He set before us the wonder and terror of those remote parts of the world which he has been instrumental in helping to map out. Birds and beasts, trees and flowers, all kinds of non-human life, he admirably described. But the human life he appeared to regard as negligible. There is, it seems, nothing for us of Europe to learn from them, except perhaps how to starve on a few roots or to weave boughs into a shelter. It may be so. But I think we should not be too certain of it. He spoke of some of these peoples as being like children; he will pardon me if I dreamed of an old man wandering among children. For the children are growing, and the old man is dying. We who are here to-night are here as the servants and the guests of a great University, a University of knowledge, scholarship, and intellect. You do well to be proud of it. But I have wondered whether there may not be colleges and faculties of other experiences than yours, and whether even now in the far corners of other continents powers not yours are being brought to fruition. I have myself been something of a traveller, and every time I return to England I wonder whether the games of those children do not hold a more intense life than the talk of your learned men — a more intense passion for discovery, a greater power of exploration, new raptures, unknown paths of glorious knowledge; whether you may not yet sit at the feet of the natives of the Amazon or the Zambesi: whether the fakirs, the herdsmen, the witch-doctors may not enter the kingdom of man before you. But, however this may be, it is not-” He turned gracefully to renewed thanks and compliments, and sat down.

“Dotty,” said Roger, “but unusual. The transmutation of energy must have been biting him pretty badly. I suppose all that was a get-back.”

“It sounded awfully thrilling,” Isabel said. “What did he mean?”

“My good child, how should I know?” her husband asked plaintively. “The witch-doctors may. Fancy a witch-doctor entering the kingdom of man before Sir Bernard! Rude of him. Sir Bernard, what did you think of it?”

Sir Bernard turned thoughtful eyes on Roger. “I can’t remember,” he said, “where I’ve seen your Mr. Considine before.”

“Perhaps you haven’t,” Roger answered, “in which case you naturally wouldn’t remember.”

“O but I have,” Sir Bernard said positively. “I have; just lately. I remember the way he curved his fingers. I can’t think where.”

“An unknown path of glorious knowledge,” Isabel murmured. “The Dean of Geography looks quite annoyed.”

“He’s thinking of the other things that are being brought to fruition,” Roger said, “all about South America. And of the old man who is dying. D’you think Considine meant any one special? or just as a whole?”

“I don’t think it was very nice of him,” Isabel said. “People might take it the wrong way.”

“Well, if you know how to take it the right way . . . ” her husband protested. “I suppose he meant something? O heavens, they’re beginning again.”

They were, but also they were approaching the end. The dinner hovered over the point at which empty chairs begin to appear, and people misjudge their moment and tiptoe out at the beginning of a speech, and others reckon the chances of catching their distant friends before they are gone. At this point every dinner contends with destiny, and if it is fortunate concludes in a rapid and ecstatic climax; if it is unfortunate it drags out a lingering death, and enters afterwards a shuddering oblivion. This dinner was fortunate. The National Anthem implored Deity on behalf of royalty, and dismissed many incredulous of both. Sir Bernard accompanied Isabel from the room. Ingram, buttonholed by a colleague or two, was delayed till most of those present had gone, and when he reached the cloak-room counter, he found it, but for himself, deserted. He was waiting a little impatiently for his things when a voice behind him spoke. “And with what passion, Mr. Ingram,” it said, “do you yourself encounter darkness?”

Roger turned and saw Nigel Considine. They had been some distance apart at the dinner, and on the same side of the same table, so that Considine’s personality had not been in play except through his rather obscure words. Now, as they stood so near, Roger was surprised to find himself taken aback by the other’s face and bearing. He was not as a rule easily impressed by those he met; he had far too good an opinion of himself. But here . . . He saw a man of apparently about fifty, tall, well-proportioned, clean-shaven, with a good forehead and a good chin. But it was neither forehead nor chin that held Ingram; it was the eyes. He thought of the word “smouldering,” and almost as quickly cursed himself for thinking of it; it was such a hateful word, only it was the most accurate. Something, repressed and controlled but vivid, was living in them; they corresponded, in their flickering intensity, to a voice that vibrated with some similar controlled ardour. The word “darkness” as it was uttered called to him as it did in the lines he had quoted; he felt as if he were looking at the thing itself. He began to speak, stammered on a syllable, and at last said helplessly: “I? darkness?”

“You spoke of it familiarly,” the other said. “You used her language.”

Roger pulled himself together; he answered with a slight hostility. “If you mean my one Shakespearean quotation-”

“Isn’t that just darkness making itself known?” Considine asked. “Or do you use apposite quotation merely as a social convenience?”

Roger felt ridiculously helpless, as if a believer accustomed to infidels were suddenly confronted by a fanatic of his own creed. But the implied sneer stung him, and he said sharply, “I don’t quote.”

“I believe that — because of your voice,” the other answered. “You must forgive me if I was offensive; could I help wondering if you really made that rapturous cry your own?”

He allowed the attendant to help him on with his coat as he spoke. Roger’s own things lay neglected on the counter, and the other attendant waited by them. Roger himself was absurdly conscious of the presence of those two auditors. He had often talked highly in similar circumstances before, not theatrically certainly but with a sardonic consciousness that the subservient listeners probably thought him a little mad, with the slight enjoyment of being too much for them, with an equally slight but equally definite and continuous despair that words which meant so much to him meant so little to others. But Considine was speaking perfectly naturally, only always with that sounding depth of significance in his voice.

“I am glad you liked it,” Roger said foolishly.

Considine said nothing at all to this, and Roger became instantly conscious of the fatuity of the words. “Rapturous cry” . . . “glad you liked it.” Ass! “No, really,” he said very hastily, “I mean . . . I did really mean it. I mean I do like poetry. Good God!” he thought to himself, “if my classes could hear me now.”

Hatted and gloved, Considine turned to him. “You are a little afraid of it, I think,” he said. “Or else you have spoken your beliefs very little.”

“Nobody cares about it,” Roger said, “and I mock at myself, God forgive me, because there’s nothing else to do.”

They were moving together out of the cloakroom.

“There’s much else to do,” Considine answered, “and I think you believe that; I think you dare encounter darkness.”

He raised his hand in salutation. Isabel was ready waiting with Sir Bernard, but before he joined them Roger stood still watching Considine going towards the door, and when at last he came to them he was still troubled.

“Darling, what’s the matter?” Isabel said. “You’re looking very gloomy.”

“Mr. Considine’s been talking of the fakirs,” Sir Bernard said, “and Roger’s wondering if he’s one.”

Roger regarded them for a moment and then made an effort to recover himself. “I don’t mind telling you,” he answered, “that Mr. Considine has played me entirely off my own stage in my own play, and I didn’t think there was a man living who could do that.”

“Elucidate,” Sir Bernard said.

“I shan’t elucidate,” Ingram answered. “I don’t see why I should be the only fellow to encounter darkness. D’you want a taxi, Sir Bernard?”

Sir Bernard did, and after having parted from the Ingrams and entered it, he lay back and tried once more to remember where he had seen Considine. It was quite recently, and yet he had a vague feeling that it wasn’t recently. An idea of yesterday and an idea of many years ago conflicted in his mind — a man with his hand a little lifted, almost as if it contained and controlled power, a hand of energy in rest. Perhaps, he thought, it was the theme of the speeches which had misled him; they had been listening to talk about distant places, and perhaps his mind had transferred that distance to time. It must have been yesterday or he wouldn’t remember so clearly. It couldn’t have been long ago or Considine, who was obviously younger than his own sixty odd years, would have changed. His gesture mightn’t have changed, all the same — well, it didn’t matter. As he got out at his Kensington house he reflected that it would come back, of course; sooner or later the pattern of his knowledge would bring that little detail to his mind. The intellect hardly ever failed one eventually, if one fulfilled the conditions it imposed. But it did perhaps rather ignore the immediate necessities of ordinary life; in its own pure life it overlooked the “Now and here” of one’s daily wishes. Still, his own was very good to him; with a happy gratitude to it he came into the library, where he found his son reading letters.

“Hullo, Philip!” he said. “Had a good evening? How’s Rosamond?”

“Very fit, thanks,” Philip answered. “Did you have a good time?”

Sir Bernard nodded, and sat down leisurely. “Roger told us how he liked poetry,” he said, “and the explorer told us how he liked himself, and Mr. Nigel Considine told us how he disliked the University.”

“Not in so many words?” Philip asked.

“Contrapuntal,” Sir Bernard said. “When you’ve heard as many speeches as I have, you’ll find that’s the only interest in them: the intermingling of the theme proposed and the theme actual.”

“I can never make out whether Roger’s serious,” Philip said. “He seems to be getting at one the whole time. Rosamond feels it too.”

Sir Bernard thought it very likely. Rosamond Murchison was Isabel’s sister and Roger’s sister-inlaw, but only in law. Rosamond privately felt that Roger was conceited and not quite nice; Roger, less privately, felt that Rosamond was stuckup and not quite intelligent. When, as at present, she was staying with the Ingrams in Hampstead, it was only by Isabel’s embracing sympathy that tolerable relations were maintained. Sir Bernard almost wished that Philip could have got engaged to someone else. He was very fond of his son, and he was afraid that the approaching marriage would make, at the times when he visited them, an atmosphere in which, but for brief intervals, he would find it impossible to breathe. Philip’s mind by itself was at present earnest and persevering, if a trifle slow. But Philip’s mind surrounded and closed in by Rosamond’s promised, so far as he could see, to become merely static. He looked over at his son.

“Roger’s serious enough,” he said. “But he still expects to get direct results instead of indirect. He never realizes that the real result of anything is always round the corner.”

“What corner?” Philip asked.

“The universal corner”, Sir Bernard said, “around which we are always on the point of turning — into a street where there are all the numbers except that of the house we’re looking for. Good heavens, I’m becoming philosophical. That’s the result of University dinners.”

“I don’t think I quite follow you,” Philip said.

“It doesn’t at all matter,” Sir Bernard answered. “I only meant that I should like you to believe that Roger’s quite serious, and a little unhappy.”

“Unhappy!” Philip exclaimed. “Roger!”

“Certainly unhappy,” Sir Bernard said. “He’s fanatic enough to believe passionately and not sufficiently fanatical to believe that other people ought to believe. Naturally also, being young, he thinks his own belief is the only real way of salvation, though he’d deny that if you asked him. So he’s in a continual unsuccessful emotional conflict, and therefore he’s unhappy.”

“But I don’t understand,” Philip said. “Roger never goes to church. What does he believe in?”

“Poetry,” Sir Bernard answered, and “O— poetry!” Philip exclaimed; “I thought you meant something religious. I don’t see why poetry should make him unhappy.”

“Try living in a world where everyone says to you, quite insincerely, ‘O isn’t Miss Murchison charming!’” his father said drily. “Or alternatively, ‘I can’t think what you see in her.’ And then-”

He was interrupted by the entrance of a third person.

“Hullo, Ian,” he broke off; “how’s the Archbishop?”

Ian Caithness was the vicar of a Yorkshire parish and Philip’s godfather. He was a tall man of about Sir Bernard’s age and looked like an ascetic priest, which was more by good luck than by merit, for he practised no extreme austerities. But he took life seriously, and (as often happens) attributed his temperament to his religion. He was therefore not entirely comfortable with other people of different temperaments who did the same thing, and a lifelong friendship with Sir Bernard had probably survived because the other remained delicately poised in a philosophy outside the Church. As a Christian Sir Bernard would have probably irritated his friend intolerably; he soothed him as a — it was difficult to say what; Sir Bernard occasionally alluded to himself as a neo-Christian, “meaning,” he said, “like most neos, one who takes the advantages without the disadvantages. As Neo–Platonist, neo-Thomist, and neolithic too, for all I know.” On the rare occasions when Caithness came to London he always stopped in Kensington; on the still rarer when Sir Bernard went to Yorkshire he always went to church.

“Rather bothered,” Caithness said in answer to his friend’s greeting. “The Government papers are making capital out of the massacres of the missions, and demanding expeditions.”

“What massacres?” Philip asked in surprise. “Being down in Dorset for a couple of weeks has cut away the papers.”

“There’ve been a number of simultaneous native risings in the interior of Africa,” Caithness answered absently, “and so far as we can hear the Christian missionaries have been killed. The Archbishop’s very anxious that the Government shan’t use that as a reason for military operations.”

“Why ever not?” Philip said staring.

Caithness made an abrupt gesture with his hand. “Because it is their duty, their honour, to die, if necessary,” he said; “it is a condition of their calling. Because the martyrs of the Church must not be avenged by secular arms.”

“A very unusual view for the Church to take,” Sir Bernard murmured. “Normally . . . It’s a curious business altogether. I was told this afternoon that the Khedive has left Cairo for a British warship. Roger’s anthropological idols getting active, I suppose.”

“The pressure on Egypt must be pretty bad, then,” Caithness said. “Well, that isn’t our business. We can’t, of course, object to any steps the Government think it wise to take in their own interests, so long as they don’t use the missions as a reason. The Archbishop has intimated to the Societies who sent them out that no material ought to be given to the papers — photographs or what not.”

“Photographs!” Sir Bernard exclaimed suddenly. “It was — of course, it was. My mind would have done it, Ian, but thank you for helping it.” He got up and went across the room to a drawer in the lower part of one of the bookcases, whence he returned carrying a number of old yellowish photographic prints. Out of these as he turned them over he selected one, and sat down again.

“Of course,” he said, “I was looking through these a day or two ago: that was what fidgeted me all the time Considine was telling us about old men and children. And if that isn’t Considine . . . he’s got his fingers curved in exactly the same way that he had to-night.”

Philip moved round and looked over his father’s shoulder. The photograph showed two men, one of about seventy, the other some twenty years or so younger, sitting in basket chairs on a lawn with the corner of a verandah showing behind them. The clothes were late Victorian; the whole picture was Victorianly idyllic. Philip saw nothing surprising about it.

“Which is your Mr. Considine?” he asked.

“The one on the right,” Sir Bernard answered. “It’s an exact likeness. When he was speaking to-night he had his head up and his fingers out and coiled just like that. And he wasn’t a day older.”

“Who’s the other man?” Philip asked.

“The other man”, Sir Bernard answered, leaning back in his chair and looking thoughtfully at the photograph, “is my grandfather. My grandfather died in 1886.”

“Um!” said Philip. “Then of course it can’t be your Mr. Considine. He looks about fifty there, which would make him over a hundred now. His father, I suppose.”

“It’s the most unusual likeness I ever saw, if it’s his father, or his grandfather, or his great-uncle, or his first, second, third or fourth cousin,” Sir Bernard protested.

“But it must be,” Philip said. “You don’t suggest that this is Considine, do you?”

“The probabilities against it are heavy,” his father allowed. “But aren’t the probabilities against two men looking so much alike also heavy?”

Philip smiled. “But where one thing’s impossible the other must be true,” he said.

“And which is impossible?” Sir Bernard asked perversely.

“O come,” Philip protested. “If the other figure here is your grandfather this photograph must have been taken before 1886. So it’s impossible — or very, very unlikely that the other man is still alive, and he certainly wouldn’t be speaking at a dinner. Is it likely? Do you know who took the photograph, by the way?”

“I took it myself,” the other said. “With my own little camera. Given me on my twelfth birthday. By my grandfather. I was staying with him for the summer.”

“You don’t remember who this other man was?”

Sir Bernard shook his head. “I remember being very pleased with the camera. And I remember that various people stayed at the house. And I photographed every one I could. But what he called himself then I couldn’t say.”

“But if it was Considine then he’d be a hundred or more by now! Did he look it?”

“If he looked it,” said Sir Bernard, “I shouldn’t be staring at this photograph. No, Philip, you’re right of course. But it’s unusual.”

“It must have been,” Philip agreed.

“Though if a man’s nerves and stomach were sound,” his father went on, “and if he kept himself fit, and had no accidents — on my word, mightn’t he look fifty when he was really a hundred? Perhaps he’s found the elixir of life in the swamps of the Zambesi.”

Philip felt the conversation was becoming absurd. “If you take it that it’s his father and that there’s a strong family likeness, I don’t see that there’s any difficulty,” he said.

“I know,” Sir Bernard answered. “But I want there to be a difficulty. So I want that photograph to be a photograph of him and not of his wife’s maiden aunt or whatever you suggested. You needn’t look superior. It’s exactly the way most people come to believe in religion. And if most people think like that, there must be something in it, Cogitatio populi, cogitatio Dei-, and so forth. O well, I shall go to bed. Perhaps I shall meet Mr. Considine again one day and be able to ask him. Goodnight, Philip, good-night, Ian. Wake me if the Africans come.”

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