Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Twelve

The Jewels of Messias

For some time after Considine had left him Roger did nothing. He sat on the verandah and looked out over the grass lawn and the terrace at the sea which lay beyond. And he thought to himself that never in his life had he felt so much, so idiotically, like a baby as he did now. Apart from that recurrent thought he couldn’t think. “It’s the shock,” he said, half-aloud from time to time, but without convincing himself of anything whatsoever, without indeed particularly wanting to convince himself.

A movement or two of a dead hand, of the hand of a man whom even Considine had now abandoned. It had failed, but it had come very near to succeeding. Roger — product of at least a semi-culture of education and intellect — sat there and felt that culture and education and intellect had all vanished together, all but the very simplest intellect. Even his passion for literature had disappeared; he simply wasn’t up to it — he had no more wish or capacity for Milton or Shakespeare than a small child, who might laugh if some of the lines were mouthed at him but would be lost and vacant-eyed if anyone tried to explain them or quoted them seriously. That dead hand moving had abolished the whole edifice of his mind; he sat and stared at the sea. In London things had been different; he had been thrilled and romanticized. In London there was no sea, and no golden-hung rooms with a couch on which a dead man lay. In London these things didn’t happen. He had heard and believed, but here belief was abolished; he was confronted with the simple fact. It had to be accepted, and its acceptance was what reduced him to a state of infancy.

The sea — he couldn’t look at the shore from where he sat; only at the terrace and the sea beyond — the sea was different. He wondered, vaguely, whether it was Africa, or whether both sea and Africa were names for something else, a full power, an irresistible mass: irresistible if it moved, but then it didn’t move. Or hadn’t. Hadn’t was a better word, because it might. All that mass of waters might gather itself up and surge forward — surge or creep, swiftly or slowly, anyhow irresistible. But he, sitting there, with the memory of that dead hand jerking — as if a sudden wave had flopped forward out of the sea over the green lawn, and then retreated again, and the whole vast mass had swung silent and removed once more. If the mass followed after a while, followed the wave? He would live in it, he would be changed so as to breathe and bear it; he would see what other inhabitants peopled it — there might be one chief thing, a fish of sorts, a swift phosphorescent fish which was called Considine on earth before the sea came. Or if the sea were merely a flat plain for something else to slide over, a huge Africa in the shape he knew from maps sliding over the water — only of course not sliding, but marching, millions on millions of black manikins, so small, so very small, but so many, marching forward, yet keeping that mapped shape, and he would be just their size and be marching with them — left, right; left, right. Whether they were alive or dead he couldn’t say; the fellow who was marching either opposite him or alongside him — it wasn’t clear which — kept quivering and jerking his hand. Hosts of them — Lord of hosts; he had known the Lord of hosts when he was called Considine, and rode on a bat’s back; these were the bats. Why was he here among this crowd of bats with negro faces that rose out of that ocean, now throbbing free from the ties which had so long held it? And all the bats were singing —“Fathom five, fathom five; rich and strange.” There they were, all coming on; he himself had called them and they were coming.

He heard, but did not notice, a step beside him. Then a voice he half-recognized said: “Here you are!” It was Caithness’s voice, and with the recognition Roger’s trance broke. He shifted, looked round, realized that he was cold, stood up, stamped once or twice, and said: “Yes, here I am. But don’t,” he added, as his mind came more to itself, “ask me where.”

“It’s a strange place,” Caithness said. “He must have many of them, scattered about. Near London, for the airships to land. How’s he kept himself hidden all these years?”

“I suppose,” Roger said flippantly, “the exalted imagination suggested it. Shakespeare was a good business man.”

He found a certain relief in talking to the priest, however different their views of Considine, as an ordinary Christian might find it easier to talk to an atheist than to a saint. It wouldn’t last, but just for a little it was pleasant and easy.

But Caithness, not having gone so far, was not so desirous of reaction. He said, looking gloomily at the young man: “I don’t know what you find in him. Where did he take you?”

Roger looked out to sea again, and half-unconsciously said, “There.” The sea should give up its dead, out of the sea of universal shipwreck the dead sailors of humanity should rise again, their bodies purified by the salt of that ocean, running up to a land which perhaps then they would feel and know for the first time in its full perfection: matter made purely sensitive to matter, and all the secrets of the passion of life revealed. Who could tell what wonders waited then, when emotion was full and strong and sufficient, no longer greedy and grasping, when the senses could take in colour and essence and respond to all the delicate vibrations which now their clumsy dullness missed, when deprivation itself should be an intense means of experiencing both the deprived self and the thing of which it was deprived, when — O when space and time were no more hindrances, when (for all one could tell) the body itself might multiply itself, as certain magicians had been said to do, and truly be here and there at once, or —“Come then,” he prayed, but did not know to whom, “master of life, come quickly.”

“It’s cold out here,” he heard Caithness say abruptly, “let’s go in. Have you seen Rosenberg?”

Roger, as he half-reluctantly turned to follow, thought of the Jew with a shock. “No,” he said. “I’d forgotten him.”

“I wonder what this man means to do with him,” the priest went on. “Colonel Mottreux has brought the famous jewels.” There was a light sneer in his voice, and Roger knew that the desire and delight of the late Simon Rosenberg was utterly incomprehensible to Caithness. Yet it should not have been so, he thought, for was there after all so much difference between minds that longed to see their own natures made manifest, the one in converted and beautiful souls adorned with virtues, the other in a chosen and beautiful body adorned with jewels? Certainly Caithness thought it was for the good of the souls, but no doubt Rosenberg thought that his wife enjoyed wearing the jewels, and very likely she did. Certainly, also, on Caithness’s hypothesis, the souls were likely to enjoy their kind of beauty for a much longer time than Mrs. Rosenberg, even if she hadn’t died when she did, could possibly have enjoyed hers. So that Caithness was actually likely to get more satisfaction out of his externalized desire than Rosenberg. But for that you must have a supernatural hypothesis, and the fact that a supernatural hypothesis had quite definite advantages didn’t make it true. The fact that man wanted a thing very much never did make it true — or the body that lay within would now perhaps be walking in the house and even coming up to speak to him . . . He shuddered involuntarily, no more in servile than in holy fear, and to escape from that hovering awe said: “Have they been given to Rosenberg yet?”

“No,” Caithness answered. “I don’t fancy Considine’s all that anxious to part with them.”

Roger looked at him in surprise. They had come into the room where they had breakfasted, from which doors of an exquisitely clear glass led on to the lawn in front of the house. The priest walked across and looked out. Roger said, rather coldly: “That’s utterly unnecessary. Do you hate him so much?”

“I don’t hate him,” Caithness said, “except that he’s set himself against God, like Antichrist which is to come.”

“O don’t be silly,” Roger said crossly. “Antichrist indeed! What on earth has he done to make you think he’d steal a lot of jewels?”

“What’s he done,” the priest said over his shoulder, “to make you think he wouldn’t? Hasn’t he put many men to death and stolen the minds of others? If he wants the jewels he’ll take them.”

“But he won’t want them,” Roger exclaimed; “that’s the whole point. I may, or for all I know Mottreux may, but he’s no more likely to want them than you are, to be fair to you,” he added with a half-humorous admission of Caithness’s own integrity.

The door opened, and Mottreux and Rosenberg came into the room. The old Jew looked at them for a moment and then went across to the other side of the room and sat down. Mottreux paused by the door, seeming not to have expected to find the other two there. His dark and hungry eyes rested on Roger and moving towards him, he said in a low voice, “I hear Nielsen has really died.”

The sentence itself seemed fatal; in its note of hopelessness it conveyed death. Roger, not finding words to answer, nodded. Mottreux walked slowly over to Rosenberg, to whom he began to talk in a low voice. Caithness, after a minute or so, went over to join them. Roger considered doing the same thing and decided not to. He didn’t want to chat, and he couldn’t see what, besides mere chat, Mottreux and Rosenberg could have to say to each other. Mottreux, he remembered, was supposed to be waiting for the captain, whoever the captain was. His mind went back to the sea, and he thought suddenly of submarines. Perhaps that was what Considine had meant by “moving.” It was all such a mad mixture, purple rhetoric and precise realism, doctrines of transmutation and babble about African witch-doctors and airships and submarines. He wondered what Isabel was doing, and whether perhaps after all he would have been wiser to stop . . . but he couldn’t, he couldn’t; the thing that for years had torn at his heart and brain had to be satisfied. He and she had alike to choose necessity. But if his necessity could have lain with hers . . . And Sir Bernard — what would he have made of this house where servants of impossibilities talked by the hearth, and he himself waited for the next moment of explication? Staring at his toes, Roger thought that that was all he did seem to be doing — waiting. Was he wasting his time? had Considine meant him to be doing something all this while? He ought to have been working, to have imagined intensely the . . .

Considine was in the room. To Roger’s preoccupied mind he might have materialized out of the air, but apparently he hadn’t. He said, “There’s no message yet. Mottreux, I’ll dictate the alternative dispositions for the generals, if you will come. These gentlemen will be able to amuse themselves a little.” He came over to Roger and looked into his eyes, then he said, smiling, “You’ve been running after your fancies, Ingram; you’ve not been driving even their faint power through you. Do you think it will happen by itself?”

“I know,” Roger said. “I was thinking so —‘They heard and were abashed and up they sprang.’”

“So,” Considine answered. “Turn on to that all your heart; and then turn that on to yourself. Don’t let yourself grow too tired, but never quite let go. We’ll talk again soon.” He turned.

“Mottreux?”

The other joined him and they went across the hall into another room, where a case stood on the table. “There are Rosenberg’s jewels,” Considine said. “We’ll give them to him presently; let’s look at them once.” He took a key from his pocket and opened the case as he spoke, and then poured upon the table a glowing heap of jewels. They shone and sparkled; they gleamed and glinted — some set, many unset; stones of every kind revealing the life of stone, colour revealing the power of colour. Considine stood and looked at them, and if Roger had been there he might have thought that the heap of jewels and the human figure reflected each other, and that intense life leapt and releapt between them. The man’s form seemed to hold in itself depths of mysterious tint; so clear and mysterious was the corporeal presence, disciplined and purged and nourished through many decades by supreme passion. The deep smile broke out again as he gazed, exulting in the joy of beauty, absorbing it, and almost visibly transmuting it into his own dominating awareness of it. He stretched out his hand and picked up one or two, and a whole diadem of splendour faded by the unparalleled delicacy of consummated mortality which held it. He laid them down and laughed softly as he did so, humming again to himself, “‘Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.’ All this,” he added aloud, “but one blossom under which we live for a moment. Yet they are almost worthy Messias.”

But Mottreux leant nearer them, and turned an agonized face towards his master.

“You are giving them back,” he whispered. “You won’t surely?” His hands trembled forward towards the heap. “It’s . . . it’s life,” he said grasping, and fell on his knees by the table.

Considine looking down at him laid a hand on his shoulder. “Do you feel them so?” he asked, and felt the answer shudder through the kneeling man’s limbs as he turned his face upwards.

“Don’t give them back,” he moaned, “don’t shut them up! they’re breath, they’re everything, they’re me! Don’t keep them in a box — unless I keep it! Give them to me! You don’t want them. You don’t care for their life, you’ve got all the life you want. I tell you they’re like woman, they’re more than woman: who ever saw a woman quiver like that? quiver and be so still? I want to grow to them, don’t take them away. I haven’t asked you much, I’ll do anything you want. Tell me someone to kill. I’ll give you his blood for these stones. I’ll give you my blood for them — only let me love them a little, let me hold them while you kill me. O they’ll kill me themselves, they’re so merciless. Can’t you feel them? Can’t you feel them melting into you? Or is it that I’m melting? I . . . I . . . ” His voice choked with his passion and stopped.

Considine leant over him. “Now, Mottreux, now,” he said, “remember the end of the experiment. Be master of love, be master of death! Change delight that is agony into that agony that is delight. Not for possession, not for yourself, achieve and transmute desire.” Standing behind him he pressed his hands on the other’s shoulders, till Mottreux crouched under the weight. “Not for a dream like the poor wretch who died but for the power and glory of life, for the marriage of death and love, and for the dominion that comes from them. Mottreux, Mottreux! you that live to beauty, die to beauty!”

But Mottreux, as the pressure relaxed, sprang to his feet and leant half over the table with a snarl.

“They are my life,” he said, “who touches them touches me.”

“Remember those who have failed on the threshold of achievement,” Considine answered. “You seek a deeper thing than these stones hold-you seek the mastery of death. Destroy them then, and enter farther into the chambers of death. But if you touch one to keep or to destroy, for greed or desire, or lest others should gain, you are lost, Mottreux. If you possess you are lost.”

“It’s not true,” the tormented creature exclaimed, and went on hurriedly. “Don’t you possess — money and houses and lands? Don’t you say that a man can grow by the ecstasy which the things he possesses give him? a miser by gold, and a lover by woman?”

“If the chance of the world throws things into his hands, let him take them,” Considine answered; “if it tears them from him let him forsake them. It need make no difference to him. As for me, I use what I have for the purpose of the schools. But if it were all caught away tomorrow what change would it cause in me? The man who prefers possession to abandonment is lost. You’ve come far, Mottreux, by experience of hunting and war; you’ve grown and thriven on that rapture. Thrive now on this; all this pain is but your power seeking its proper end.”

“Nielsen sought it and he’s dead,” the other cried out. “It can’t be done; it’s wilder than all dreams. Haven’t others in Uganda and Nigeria tried it and failed?”

“And Jersey and London,” Considine said. “More than you’ll ever know. Will you disbelieve because a million have failed? One shall succeed and others and their children shall have it in their blood. Leave Nielsen; leave all. Leave this.”

He moved to face the other and meeting his eyes held them with so strong a power that Mottreux turned his own eyes away.

But he moaned desperately, “I can’t — not this. Anything else — not this.”

“Are you a fool?” Considine said, “it’s always anything else, and it’s always this. How will you die indeed if you daren’t die now? There’s not a man in all this world who doesn’t have to relinquish; it’s given to us to do it willingly and make our profit from it. Strike and live in the wound.”

“But you won’t give them back?” Mottreux cried. “At least keep them yourself; don’t give them away.”

“Certainly I shall give them,” Considine answered, “for it’s better that they should serve a myth than a man, and if I were to keep them now I should take the kingdom of man away from you-”

As he paused, there was a sharp knock at the door. Considine thrust Mottreux round so that the tormented face was hidden, and cried a word over his shoulder. Vereker came into the room. “Sir, the message is here,” he said.

“I’ll come,” Considine answered, and as Vereker went out he gathered the jewels in his hands and poured them back into the case. Mottreux leaned against the table; he could not speak; he gazed as the traveller whose camel has just fallen might stare after the vanished mirage or as a young boy might when the beloved of his heart gives her sacred hand into another’s charge. Considine locked the case, dropped it back on the table, slipped his hand into Mottreux’s arm, and drew him from the room.

Meanwhile the three guests, centrifugally repulsed by the very ardour which united them, remained for some time in the one room. They were aware, as they sat there, of increased movement in the house; new voices came to them, and the occasional sound of cars arriving or departing. The expectancy of crisis was heightened, and Caithness who was the most open to external impressions, was the first to give way. Ezekiel still sat, lost in meditation on antique words, by the fireplace; brooding over the manner in which the High and Holy One had in the secret story of Joseph or of David, in the hidden sayings of Ruth or Esther, signified the return of Israel to His pardon. Roger, concerned with other texts, sought to bring into his memory of them the emotion awakened by the sight he had endured; he attempted to realize the august periods of time and space which exist in and are measured by the mastery of poetry. Lines came to him from a distance, but it was not exterior distance; it was himself whose leagues lay between himself and their origin, and all that space of self was no longer void but tremulous with unapprehended life. He had always, it seemed, been too close to them; he understood how small his feeble little understanding was. They rose from an abyss — they had always said so —“the mind’s abyss”—“that awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss”— his mind’s abyss-it would lead him into the abyss — it would define the abyss for him — the powers that inhabited it were his powers -O how little, how little, did the most ardent reader know what mysteries lay in “the mystery of words”

There darkness makes abode, and all the host Of shadowy things work endless changes; there as in a mansion like their proper home he wondered for a fantastic instant if it were this house which was indeed their home.

But Caithness’s mind was not on such exploration. The nature of his intellect and the necessities of his office had directed his attention always not towards things in themselves but towards things in immediate action. He defined men by morality; it was perhaps inevitable that he should define God in the same way. The most difficult texts for him to explain away had always been those which obscurely hint at the origin of evil itself in the Unnameable, “the lying spirit” of Zedekiah, the dark question of Isaiah —“Shall there be evil in the city and I the Lord have not done it?” He was always trying to avoid Dualism, and falling back on the statement that Omniscience might permit what it did not and could not originate, yet other origin (outside Omniscience) there be none. It is true he always added that it was a mystery, but a safer line was to insist that good and evil were facts, whatever the explanation was. True as this might be, it had the slight disadvantage that he saw everything in terms of his own good and evil, and so imperceptibly to resist evil rather than to follow good became the chief concern of his exhortations. So perhaps the great energies are wasted; so perhaps even evil is not sufficiently resisted. His mind now was full of Inkamasi’s defiance; his own pet miracle seemed to justify him, and he thought of himself in relation to the king as the chief champion of Christendom against Antichrist. It was also a little annoying to be treated as if he were in an elementary stage of his own religion, and a personal rancour unconsciously reinforced the devotion of his soul to its hypothesis.

He went out of the room, intending to go back to the Zulu, and saw that the house was indeed more populated than it had been. He saw several new faces in the hall; there were two or three officers in a strange dark-green uniform. One man had a face like an Arab; there was another who might be an Italian. He heard a voice say “Feisul Pasha,” and saw a third cross the hall from the front door. He turned abruptly, ran up the stairs, and on the first landing met Mottreux.

The colonel was coming slowly along; his face was pale and wrenched. As he saw Caithness he paused, and the priest instinctively stood still also. So for a few moments they waited, duellists uncertain of what was to come. Mottreux said at last — as if it were not what he meant: “You’re going to the king?”

“And if so?” Caithness asked. Something in Mottreux’s voice puzzled him. It seemed to wish to delay him; it hesitated; he could have believed that it inquired about something which had not been mentioned.

Mottreux said abruptly: “I suppose you think we’re all wrong?”

Caithness very shortly said he did, but the other did not step away. He added: “I suppose you — want us to fail?”

Caithness, again shortly, agreed. Mottreux came close up to him, looked round, began to whisper, and was suddenly taken by a spasmodic shudder. He caught the priest’s arm and then let it go sharply, as if he had touched something hateful. He said in a low voice, “If one could . . . ” and his voice died away.

In the tone of a director of souls Caithness said: “Could?”

“If one could — make peace,” Mottreux whispered. “Would there — would there be room for a man who could make peace?”

He was close up against Caithness, and the priest, feeling his agitation and shaken by it, dropped his voice to an equal whisper, “But how can — we shan’t take his terms.”

Mottreux said, “But without his terms?”

“How can you make peace without him?” Caithness asked.

“He isn’t human,” Mottreux jerked out. “If . . . if one caught a mad ape . . . ”

The truth flashed into Caithness’s mind — the possible truth, and the possibility possessed him. In this strange house, amid strange inhabitants, had come the strangest whisper of all, a whisper of antagonism in the very heart of the enemy. His brain ran before him, forgetting everything but this impossible chance. He leaned a little closer yet, and said, “If you can’t cage it-”

Mottreux answered, “You know the Prime Minister?”

“My friend does,” Caithness said.

“If the ape were chained and caged?” Mottreux said. “If he were quite helpless?”

“If one were very sure,” Caithness said, and dared not stop to ask what he meant.

There was an almost breathless stillness, then Mottreux said again, “He’s not human; he’s monstrous. He robs us of everything — of our souls!”

“He robs you of everything, of your souls most of all,” the priest said, not knowing after what mingled mass of colour the other’s spirit panted. Mottreux’s face took on a sudden cunning, as if he plunged that secret deeper into his heart and veiled it there more securely. He said, “If anything should happen-”

“It would be a fortunate thing for the world,” the priest said. “But,” he added, “that’s in the hands of God.”

“Aye — God,” the other answered. “But he behaves like God. If anything happened, would your friend-”

Caithness paused. He thought of Sir Bernard, and ironically with the thought there came the memory of his own visit to London, of his talk with the Archbishop, of his insistence that the Church must not use the secular arm. Yes — but he wasn’t then in this house, so close against this mad dreamer; he hadn’t seen the African horde dancing round the upright figure whom it worshipped, he hadn’t heard of this blasphemy of the conquest of death. Never as an ordinary rule — never but when — never but, for this once, now — never afterwards, for this couldn’t happen twice. And even now it wasn’t he or his friends or the Church; it was the man’s own follower. And the Zulu Christian would be saved from captivity, and Roger from delusion, and men from a lie. Now, just now — if this whisperer so close to him chose . . .

“Anyone who saved England,” he said, “anyone who did would be a friend to all men.”

“You’d see that he was safe?” Mottreux urged. “You’d speak to Suydler? you’d keep me secret till it was right to have it known?”

“Of course,” Caithness answered. “You should be with me till all was agreed; it would be easy . . . ”

There was a voice in the hall below; a door opened and shut. Someone came to the foot of the stairs. Mottreux nodded and stepped away, breathing only “Be ready then. I can’t tell when it may be.” He disappeared down the staircase, and Caithness after a few moments went slowly on to join the king.

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