Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Fourteen

Sea-Change

Some time next morning, after wandering long on foot and finding at last in an unknown town a small garage where they hired a car that took them to Winchester, and coming thence by train to London, they reached again the house in Kensington, from which less than forty-eight hours earlier they had been swept away. The streets were still full of wanderers, though it had been known for hours that safety had returned, and the wild intrusion been destroyed. The mob by then had fallen into a waking stupor, not unlike the sleep in which Rosamond still lay; it moved somnambulistically, and the civil authorities, by the use of police and military, by commandeering transport, by supplying food and drink as best they could, managed at last to control and direct it. Laden motor-buses carried the fugitives back towards their houses; taxis, lorries, and all other possible vehicles were put in service for the same purpose. Roger and Caithness made a slow way by the Tubes, now gradually freeing themselves from their invasion, to Colindale Square. They came to it shivering in the bleak noon — as chilled bathers might stumble up a stony beach, while behind them a deserted and disconsolate sea moaned. Sir Bernard came hastily to meet them, deserting for the time being the medley of fugitives who filled his kitchen and overflowed into the other rooms, and for whom conveyances had not yet been found. Roger nodded to him but could not speak; he left explanations to Caithness. In a moment Isabel came also; to her he turned, and with her he shut himself away. Once safe he said to her with no accent in his voice: “He’s dead.”

“Dead!” she exclaimed. “Roger, my dear!”

He had perhaps never entirely trusted her before, for all their sweet friendship. But his defences were down, and he lay exposed, terribly sensitive to her looks and words. She neither sympathized nor condoled; in the deep practice of her love her heart was struck equally with his. She suffered his desolation as she had his desire; the trust of his spiritual necessity with which she had charged herself knew this union also. He realized at that moment the vast experience of love which she had undergone, and accepted it. But he only said with a faint smile, implicitly recognizing her vicarious grief, “Yet you didn’t believe in him.”

She sat down, wide eyes on his, and ignoring the comment, said in a hushed voice of awe, “Tell me. Can he be?”

He told her as clearly as he could, what had happened. And at the end she said, “But, Roger, mightn’t he . . . ” She couldn’t finish; her own personal nature fainted before the intensity with which it felt another’s hope.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “If so . . . It may be, but I daren’t think of it. Isabel, Isabel, to think what killed him!”

At that moment Caithness was talking swiftly to Sir Bernard downstairs. “So, when I went back for our coats, I saw them,” he said; “they were all ready there, all three packets and I brought them with me.” He pointed at the table on which three thick envelopes lay which he had extracted from his coat-pocket. “He must have meant to take them with him, or else they were directions for the others. They were on a chest in the hall, waiting till we — till he — came back. Don’t you think they ought to go to the Prime Minister?”

“I hate telling the Prime Minister anything,” Sir Bernard said. “It’s like feeding a gorilla without a body; he can’t digest words. I don’t know which is worse for civilized man, Suydler or Considine.”

“Considine’s dead,” Caithness said.

Sir Bernard lifted a packet distastefully. “I wish I were a Christian,” he murmured, “then I should feel I ought to. As it is — I suppose Considine is dead?”

“Of course he is,” Caithness said impatiently. “Mottreux shot him; I’ve just told you. I’d no notion he wanted the jewels. And even if he weren’t — Considine, I mean — that would only make it more urgent that Suydler should have the papers. They may be of use or they mayn’t. But he ought to have them.”

“They’ll all be in cipher, I should think,” Sir Bernard said, with a good deal of satisfaction. “Suydler can have a jolly time guessing it. But I don’t like it, in spite of Mr. Considine’s obscene and pernicious gospel. I don’t like giving any gospel to Suydler. Yes, all right, I suppose I must. Portrait of Gallio presenting the manuscript of the Evangelists to the Missing Link. You’ll have to come too; then you can tell him all about the house.”

When as a consequence the house by the sea was approached, late the same day, with great force and much circumspection, the results were a little disappointing. The body of Inkamasi still lay on its royal couch, but the body of the master of the adepts had disappeared. No living person was there; no car in the drive nor submarine in the bay. But behind the house lay Mottreux, a knife-wound in his throat, and sprawled over him, a bullet in his chest, the body of a negro, whom Caithness recognized as one of those that had followed Considine to the king’s death. Further away lay the Egyptian, also shot. Vereker and the Arab were not to be found.

But the extent of the catastrophe which the traitor had brought upon the headship of the cause became clear, as the days passed. Considine and three of the closest members of his personal staff had been destroyed, and the great movement was checked. There were no more messages from the High Executive. What tale reached the various headquarters of the African armies the European Governments never knew. But the labouring and anxious generals of their forces began to telegraph the most cheering news. In one or two districts something like panic broke out among the enemy, a great noise of wailing and disorderly firing and then flight. In others the negro forces began to retire, and as they were pressed by the pursuit gave way and were overwhelmed.

The papers Caithness had seized, which after a great deal of trouble were at least partially decoded — only partially; some of them remained mysteries even to the most ingenious cipher-expert — contained sufficient allusions in detail to make the task of the uncovering of Considine’s bases — houses in Europe and headquarters in Africa — a much easier business than had been feared. An encouraging but slightly vague account appeared in the Press of how a British patriot, who preferred his Imperial citizenship to his Zulu birthright, had shot Considine while being pressed to join him. It was understood that he had deliberately sacrificed himself in order to help England, and a good deal of quiet (and not too quiet) pride was felt that it was an English subject, or at least a Dominion subject, who had acted so. No Senegalese had done as much, nor the native of any district administered by other European countries. Such was the spirit produced by the British occupation. A rather acrimonious correspondence opened between the British Government and the other Powers on the subject of Considine’s own nationality. The French, Italian, Spanish, and Belgian ambassadors presented Notes which pointed out that the late Nigel Considine being a British subject the respective Governments had in equity a claim to be indemnified by his Britannic Majesty’s Government for the expense to which they had been put. His Britannic Majesty replied through the High Executive of Mr. Raymond Suydler’s Foreign Minister (the Earl of Basingstoke) to the effect that there were nine mutually destructive reasons why the claim should either not be admitted or should be set against still heavier amounts due to his Britannic Majesty for damage suffered. Mr. Suydler made a great speech at an Albert Hall Meeting, and was cheered wildly when he announced that the European Governments had determined to sign no formal terms of peace with an enemy who had no business to be there at all, but to hold a conference in Madeira to decide on the future settlement of Africa, the terms of which would afterwards be submitted to the League of Nations, thus confirming the passionate belief of the Powers in democratic control. Mr. Suydler was also loudly applauded in the course of his witty and brilliant remarks upon the attempts of the madman who had been responsible for all the trouble to turn his megalomaniac nonsense into philosophical nonsense. “Guess: what can you do but guess? We guessed — and we guessed right!” Terrific cheers.

Sir Bernard read it and smiled a little sadly. Philip read it and let it slip by; he was engaged with a recovered Rosamond and his career. Roger did not read it. Sir Bernard asked Philip whether, at a pinch, he would vote for Suydler or Considine. Philip read it, and for almost the first time in his life startled his father into real admiration by saying that he should vote for fan Caithness. But Sir Bernard’s mind illumined the answer with a drier light than Philip’s. He wrote of it to the priest: “I congratulate you, my dear fan, on your proselyte — you can instruct him further when you come up to marry him. There’s a notion grown up that since his career’ll have to be postponed or reorganized or reborn or something, it would be only reasonable (“reasonable!” I also have my martyrdoms) that I should make financial arrangements for him to be married at once. Rosamond’s still recuperating at the cottage in Dorset, she sent me a pretty note of thanks the other day in which she asked whether you didn’t know the Archbishop fairly well. You’ll guess — as Suydler would say — what she meant. I leave it to you to decide whether you do — well enough, I mean. If he should be shot by a deacon who wanted to wear the vestments of the See at a fancy dress ball I fancy Suydler would be willing to offer you the Archiepiscopal mitre; he’s touchingly grateful to someone, and went so far as to ask me if there was anything I wanted. I told him I wanted justice and proportion which is the daughter of justice, knowledge and abstraction which is the daughter of knowledge. This dreadful tendency to personify and (therefore) mythologize I attribute to you and the late Mr. Considine, who was an entire mythology about himself. From Considine to you (excuse me), from you to Philip, from Philip to Rosamond — behold the history of religion! The High Executive disappears under the sea, and leaves its brother of Canterbury to add a touch of richness to my daughter-inlaw’s wedding. If I had indulged myself in irony as long as Providence, I should be a little tired of it by now, but I suppose he has infinite patience with himself as well as with us. But mightn’t he occasionally try a new note?”

Of Roger Sir Bernard said nothing, though he thought of him as he wrote “the High Executive disappears under the sea.” For he was aware that that was all that they knew, and even that they only surmised, and he thought Roger was intensely aware of it too. But he did not know how acutely, and Isabel did not tell him.

Nor had she told him of how much younger and older at once Roger had seemed since his return. She missed in him something of warfare and much of scorn. If he was arrogant still it was a more airy arrogance than of old; if he mocked he mocked more tenderly. But she wondered whether in his heart he — and she also — secretly awaited a return.

Roger himself could not have told her. He shut himself away from the noisy European victories, from the talk and the congratulations. He took up his work again, but as he made notes for a special address on The Antithetical Couplet from Dryden to Johnson he was humbly aware that this work was part of a greater work. It would be his fault if he so touched the least detail of the divine art as to leave himself or others less sensitive to its central passion — his fault, his most grievous fault, his sad incompetence. But even sad incompetence might recognize the Power it could hardly name. He would never cease any more to acknowledge it, to search in it and for it, to believe in it, to wait for it. Other people had their ways; this was his. What more —

What indeed had chanced? Had the submarine, plunging away from that house of mingled death and life, carried with it but the dead body of its lord? and had men somewhere far off, seen that body change beneath inexorable corruption and committed it to the waters of the sea or to the African earth? Did it there undergo the final doom of mortality in slow change, or had some fiercer destruction, the shark or the tiger, seized on it? He had dreams sometimes of sharks fighting round the sinking body of Nigel Considine, and sometimes he had other dreams. He saw the body carried to the submarine, he saw it carried off far into the ocean, and then, sometimes in the vessel, sometimes out of it, he saw it change. Sometimes he saw men in a narrow room watching by it, crying out, hurrying to it, adoring it. But more often — though the dream itself was not often — he saw it floating alone in the middle of the sea, far away, far down, and he saw the eyes open and the hands move, and the whole body stir. Life was rushing back into it; power, spirit, imagination, whatever name sad incompetence found for it, was reanimating the willing flesh. He saw it walking in the waters and heard it calling through them. The creatures of the deep, octopus and shark, greed and ferocity, fled before it. Behind it, as it came, there was no more sea; in front of it the waters flowed into it and became the man who moved in them. Back from the shore they swept, out towards that advancing humanity, and all their mysteries were swallowed up in his shining lucidity. This was the vast of experience, currents and tides, streams and whirlpools, restless waves and fathomless depths, absorbed by man. The salt that tinctured it, as the salt of Sir Bernard’s amusement tinctured life, was absorbed also. Valuable as that preservative salt was, in the end it was infinitely less than the elements of which it was part, and to prefer it to the renewed body would be to prefer the means to the end, detachment to union. Irony might sustain the swimmer in the sea; it could not master the sea. A greater than Sir Bernard did that now, if indeed now, up the African sand or the English beach, that conqueror returned.

If he returned. If he carried out the experiment of his vision, the purpose of his labours. If, first among his peers, when all believed him lost, he thrust himself from the place of shades back into immortal and transmuted life, if he held death at his disposal, if he knew how the vivid ecstasy of experience dominated all shapes and forms, all accidents of time and place. If he came now, humming those last songs which the greatest of the poets had made from his own vision of Ariel flying free, smiling at the blindness of extreme pain and the paralysis of extreme possession, guardian of myths and expositor of power . . . if he returned. If now, while the world shouted over the defeat of his allies and subjects, while it drove its terror back into its own unmapped jungles, and subdued its fiercer desires to an alien government of sterile sayings, if now he came once more to threaten and deliver it. If — ah beyond, beyond belief! — but if he returned . . .

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