Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Ten

London After the Raid

The wild figures that danced on the outskirts of London that night were but few and scattered representations of the more monstrous forms that filled it within. The serpent skins that clothed some of the leaders of the dance were poor vestments if compared to the mad dragons of escaping multitudes. Considine had indeed loosed but few of his meinie on the hills of the north and the south; he had not cared, it was afterwards discovered, even to justify the announcements of burning villages and destroyed troops which he had caused to be broadcast. A few bombs had been dropped but more for noise and mental horror than to destroy. He had even reassured London, speaking from its centre. But there were many whom the reassurance did not solace, and there were many, many more, who did not hear it, for they were already in flight. It was known in the small streets and the slums of the extremer suburbs that the Africans had landed, and of those who in those crowded buildings heard the news there were few who did not rush out to seek safety. The north fled southwards; the south fled northwards; the west broke away towards the east. Over the east alone no hostile airfleet manoeuvred and fought the English planes while its laden airships sank earthward to landing places prepared long since. Many a house with wide grounds had waited for this night; flares summoned the enemy and they came. At most they numbered few enough in comparison with the defenders, and they were not meant for attack. But on all convenient heights their fires blazed, and sacred revels were begun which till now had been hidden in the black night of African swamps. As there the wild animals fled from the drums, the conches, and the screams, so now the terrified population rushed away to what it hoped was safety. The slums poured out their people, and not the slums alone. From many a fine house, lying happily on the outer rim of London, cars issued bearing huddled women and children, while men, both young and old, drove them furiously away. A brother coming back home would bear the news, or a father peering from a window would be aware, dreadfully near him, of the awful barbarian tumult breaking out, and household after household sought by their mechanical inventions to escape from the strange gospel which called to their uncomprehending minds. Considine’s voice had hardly ceased its proclamation when opposite Charing Cross a laden car from near the Heath crashed into another similarly laden from the Terrace at Richmond. This was but the first of many similar catastrophes. London became the enemy of London; civil war, chaotic and bloody, surged through the streets. Ealing and Highgate and Streatham, listening to the guns, heard instead the riot roaring through them, hesitated and feared and shrank, and then, as the rumours grew louder, and the panic in the streets spread into the houses, themselves swept out to swell the flood. The spray of the approaching waves of humanity mingled; the first fugitives passed each other and soon began to call out, and heard how they fled not towards safety but towards new danger. And behind those earliest and most timorous souls came the main hurrying processions. They came up towards the centre; stations and tubes were choked, and yet tubes and stations offered no certain refuge from an enemy pursuing on foot. It was not merely death dropped from the skies that threatened but death hastening along on earth. Round about Piccadilly and Pall Mall, clambering over the railings of the parks, trying to rest in Trafalgar Square, surging over the bridges and even running on and falling from their parapets, surging also from the thoroughfares of the north, the mob converged on the central lines of Oxford Street and Holborn and Cheapside, of the Strand and Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill and Cannon Street. There it sought to pause, but still the continual presence thrust it from behind, and now it was driven on not merely to escape death that pursued from afar but death that threatened close at hand. The mere necessity of breath oppressed it, the desire of escape not from Africa but from itself. Ignorant and at odds with itself it swayed and exuded itself, and was magnetized by some slight movement and rushed after in blind despair or even blinder hope. A woman with a baby would take a few steps down a partly deserted turning, and others would follow, and a small eddy would be set up which a mile away was reflected in another insane and multitudinous onrush. A young man would pull his girl into an arch or doorway for rest, and others would see and follow, and a little tumult would break out in that greater tumult, and the first couple were fortunate indeed if they both emerged from that tiny crush alive into the ever-moving surges that poured by them. Yet, terrible as the fear was, fear was not present alone; desire and loathing and the cruel darkness of abandoned souls walked in the mist of the crowds and took their pleasure as they could. Abominable things were done, which none saw or seeing stopped to prevent. Shrieks went up in hidden corners, and laughter and sudden silences answered them, silences hardly discernible in the general roar and themselves filled with the never-ceasing sound of the guns. How many devotees of Considine’s choosing rode through the air to death that night was never rightly known, but not till the late November dawn was high did the movement of his planes or the efforts of the English gunners cease. There was therefore, for the elements of demented London, no desire of return as there was no chance of return; within and without the passionate terror hurled them on. Farther and farther east they poured; not merely the Thames but great reservoirs and docks and small tributaries of small rivers, swallowed those who were pushed aside; and there were puddles in the street which were not water where someone had striven to guard his belongings, and heaps that were a dreadful hindrance to those who came behind. A pestilence of the spirit walked in the night and slew its victims as it went.

It hovered in the streets; it rested in churches and such public buildings as had been readily and benevolently opened. For in the early hours of the exodus men had supposed that it would, however serious and tragic, still be quiet and controlled. Certain authorities therefore had hoped that the buildings in their charge would be of use to exhausted fugitives. St. Paul’s, in a holy goodwill, was so opened. The crowd entered, increased, filled it, flowed over the rails of the sanctuary, clambered upon the altars, and within its walls suffered and inflicted horror. The windows of public-houses, as of eating-houses and gunsmiths, had been smashed, and bottles of drink obtained, and the strongest men made use of their strength. On the High Altar a drunken woman smashed a bottle over the head of a vociferating assailant, and was shot by his companion before the victim had died. The kingship which Inkamasi so proudly held had here its apish rival in savage might or dextrous cunning; yet that kingship was unstained, as all lovely things are unstained by their detestable imitations, since beauty cannot be manifested unless the mind assents. Without that assent, beauty itself must be tyranny; but with that grave acceptance there is no government that is not beautiful, for love is not only the fulfilling but the beginning of the law.

In Kensington all that night Sir Bernard watched, as if on a rocky island — one of a scattered archipelago of such islands — a lingering child of a lost race watched the sea overwhelm his city. After the departure of Considine with his guests or prisoners — no-one was quite sure which they were — Sir Bernard had gone back with Isabel and Philip to the library. He stood there with his back to the fire, surveying the room, the stains of blood on the carpet and the divan, the empty chairs round the card-table, and the dropped cards, the general disarray that had meant companionship and now meant desertion. He looked at Isabel, now enduring a separation deeper than his own — at least, presumably; everyone would say it was. Even in that moment he found himself wondering whether Isabel or he would miss Roger the most; it was so difficult to compare these things. Isabel had lost her husband; and he had lost — a friend who lived mostly in Yorkshire, and a younger friend whom he saw perhaps three or four times a month for an hour or two, and a barbarian chief whom he’d only known a few days. O and a Jewish mystic whom he didn’t know at all. They didn’t, all of them put together, sound intimate beside Isabel’s loss, and yet . . . It wasn’t whom you lost; it was what you lost, what centre of what concern or quality of yourself was torn away, so that your own capacity moved helplessly in the void. Something very like stability had been torn from under him. He looked at Isabel again and wondered. Was it merely her youth that made her seem, in that house of desertion, the least deserted of them all? He was old; he’d outlived his time; he was living on his memories. There went through him a rare flash of envy; Isabel hadn’t to live on her memories, Isabel —

Sir Bernard recaptured a sense of proportion. “No-one who’s just in the throes of seeing Considine go off with a Zulu, a Jew, a clergyman, and an expert in the poets ought to talk of living on his memories,” he said to himself. He said to Isabel as tenderly as possible: “Why did you tell Roger to go?”

“Because I wanted him to, since he wanted to,” she said. “More; for I wanted him to even more than he did, since I hadn’t myself to think of and he had.”

Sir Bernard blinked. “I see,” he said. “But — I only ask — isn’t it a little risky . . . deciding what other people want?”

“Dear Sir Bernard, I wasn’t deciding,” she said, “I was wanting. It isn’t quite the same thing. I want it — whatever he wants. I don’t want it unselfishly, or so that he may be happy, or because I ought to, or for any reason at all. I just want it. And then, since I haven’t myself to think of, I’m not divided or disturbed in wanting, so I can save him trouble. That’s all.”

“O quite, quite,” Sir Bernard said. “That would be all. And is that what you call quiet affection?”

Isabel looked a trifle perplexed. “I don’t call it anything,” she said. “There isn’t anything to call it. It’s the way things happen, if you love anyone.”

“Of course,” Sir Bernard said. “Too much excitement has made me dull to-night. Of course, it’s the way things happen. The whole round world has noticed it. So you wanted Roger to go?”

Isabel said, a little unhappily: “When you put it like that it sounds somehow as if I didn’t really, or only because he wanted to. Don’t you see I couldn’t want it because of him? He — somehow he wanted it in me. O I don’t know. I’m not as intelligent as you, but I know it was the one thing I had to have to make me happy.”

Sir Bernard looked at her again, very steadily. “And does it make you happy?”

“Utterly,” Isabel said. “O of course it’s dreadfully painful, but — yes, utterly.”

On that rich and final word they fell into silence. Irony, even loving irony, could say no more. The mind accepted a fact which was a contradiction in terms, and knew itself defeated by that triumphant contradiction. Sir Bernard wished he could have heard Considine and Isabel arguing — not that Isabel would or could have argued. So far as he could see, she was saying exactly the opposite of Considine, and yet they curiously agreed. They were both beyond the places of logic and compromise, even amused compromise. They were both utterly, utterly — well, they were both utterly, and that was that. It was no wonder Isabel didn’t want to go to Africa.

It was Philip who presently, wandering restlessly about the house, brought them news of the number of fugitives who were beginning to hurry along Kensington High Street. Sir Bernard, hearing, frowned. “This,” he said, “if it’s happening everywhere, may mean pure hell before long. Let’s go and look from upstairs.” There was an attic window which commanded the High Street, and from it they surveyed the increasing crowd. A few of the fugitives, turning aside, hurried through the square in which the house stood, but not many; most of them pressed frantically onwards.

“I’d better make sure the front door’s fastened up,” Philip said suddenly. “We don’t want any of them pushing in.” He added, more carefully, “I suppose actually there’s no danger.”

“Of course not,” Isabel said. “Mr. Considine said he wasn’t going to hurt London.”

“I don’t really see,” Sir Bernard said, “how one can be expected to believe Mr. Considine. You can’t refuse your mind and yet have people accept your word, can you?”

“But surely you do believe him?” Isabel said. “He said so.”

“I know he said so,” Sir Bernard patiently explained. “What I’m trying — O very well. Besides, you’re right. I do believe him, but I can’t think why I should. The Second Evolution of Man, I suppose. Considine at the bottom of a well — and what a well!”

“That man’s very tired,” Isabel said, watching a party of five; a woman carrying one child, a man with two, who had just turned into the square, and were stopping even in their haste for a necessary minute. “He oughtn’t to go on — nor ought she. Sir Bernard, don’t you think-”

“Yes,” Sir Bernard said. “I suppose you want to rest, too. Good God, you do! And feed?”

“Well,” Isabel said, blushing slightly, “I was thinking, if you’d got any milk, the children . . . I could just go and speak to them.”

“Then Philip will go too,” Sir Bernard said. “Ecstasy has very curious forms sometimes, especially if it happens to be attacking anyone who isn’t.”

“Isn’t what?” asked Isabel. “I thought you were talking about me.”

Sir Bernard took her arm. “Come down,” he said. “Philip, go and open the door,” and as the young man obeyed, “Is that true?” he asked.

She turned clear eyes upon him. “I’m no good at words,” she said, “and I’m a fool at knowing things, but when there’s something in you that has its way, and when Roger’s doing what he must do, and I too — O every fibre of me’s aching for him and I could sing for joy all through me. Isn’t that all the ecstasy that I could bear? Come and let’s do something before it breaks my heart to be alive.”

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