Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Two

Suicide While of Unsound Mind

Philip was down the next morning before his father or his godfather, urged by a very strong anxiety to see the papers. Trouble in Africa, as it happened, was possibly going to affect not merely high national and political affairs but his own personal arrangements. Africa, of course, was a large place, and the Christian missions had been established he had gathered, somewhere in the centre; he wasn’t much disturbed over them. But what his father had called “the pressure on Egypt” was another matter. Philip’s own job was engineering, and he had not long before come to an arrangement with a business company known as “The North African Rivers Development Syndicate,” by which he was to go out to whatever North African Rivers were to be developed as assistant constructing engineer. His chief, a man named Munro, was already out there, somewhere in Nigeria, and in a couple of months Philip was to join him. Meanwhile he was putting in some time at the London offices of the Syndicate, which was run by two brothers named Stuyvesant. But though these were the official heads it was generally understood in the City that the real force behind the company was a much richer man, a certain Simon Rosenberg, who, among his interests in railways and periodicals and fisheries and dyeworks, in South African diamonds and Persian oils and Chinese silks, in textiles and cereals and patent-medicines, rubber and coffee and wool, among all these had cast a careless eye on African rivers. In that side of the business Philip wasn’t very interested. Sir Bernard had satisfied himself that the company was as sound as could reasonably be expected, and a year’s work — or perhaps even two years — would give Philip a start in his profession. Then he would, all being well, come home and marry Rosamond, and see what jobs were going at home. Munro was a fairly big man and if Munro gave him a good word . . .

It was consequently something of a shock to him, when he opened the paper, to find two huge headlines competing. On the left a three-column space announced “Multi-millionaire Found Dead; Rosenberg Shot”; “Terrible Discovery in Rich Man’s Library.” On the right a similar space was filled with: “Africans Still Advancing”; “Hordes in Nile Valley”; “Rumours of Trouble in South Africa”; “French Defeat in Tangier.” Philip goggled at the thick type, and instinctively tried to read both accounts at once. He was still immersed when Caithness came in, just preceding Sir Bernard.

“I say,” Philip cried to them, “Rosenberg’s shot himself.”

“Rosenberg!” Sir Bernard exclaimed. “Whatever for?”

“It doesn’t say,” Philip answered. “He was found in the study of his house late last night by the butler, who thought he heard a noise and went to see.”

“And found he had,” Sir Bernard said. “Nasty for the butler.” He picked up his own paper, and opened it so that he and Caithness could look at it together. But the priest’s eyes went first to the columns of African news, and after his first glance Sir Bernard’s followed them. They read the brief obscure telegrams, the explanatory comments, the geographical addenda. It seemed that something very unusual was happening in Africa. To begin with, all communication with the interior had completely ceased. Telegraphs had ceased to function, railways had been cut, roads had been blocked. By such roads as had not been blocked there were emerging against all the outer districts hostile bodies of natives, some so small as to be less than a raid, some so large as to mean an invasion, and at that, wherever they appeared, a victorious invasion. The Egyptian army, which had for some weeks been moving leisurely south in order to suppress trouble in the southeast, was now retiring in considerable disorder and even more considerable haste. The French had “suffered a set-back”; the Spaniards had fallen back towards the coast. Communications with Kenya, with Nigeria, with Abyssinia, with Zanzibar, had ceased. Raids had taken place on the English territories in the South. Air-investigation was being undertaken. The Powers were in touch and were taking necessary steps.

“But what “, Caithness said, “has happened to the air-investigation of the last month?”

“It hasn’t come back,” Sir Bernard answered. “I was talking to a man in the War Office the other night, and he told me that they’ve sent out aeroplanes by the score, and hardly any have returned. Some have, I suppose, but what they reported is being kept dark. Philip, I think the African Rivers look like being in too much spate for your engineering.”

“But what about Rosenberg?” Philip asked. “Do you suppose that’s what made him kill himself?”

“Did he kill himself?” Sir Bernard said, turning to the other columns. “‘Butler hears shot . . . letter for the Coroner . . . police satisfied. Financial comment on page 10’; yes, well, we can wait till after breakfast for that. Curious, I wonder what decided him. Let’s just see whether the Archbishop said anything.”

It appeared that the previous day had been agitated in both Houses. In the Commons the Prime Minister had announced that forces were being dispatched immediately to punish the various tribes guilty of the abominable massacres at the mission stations. Asked by half a dozen members of the Opposition at once whether he could promise that these expeditions should not develop into costly Imperialistic wars, and whether the action taken was by request of the ecclesiastical authorities, the Prime Minister said that the Archbishop had naturally deprecated further bloodshed but that he and other ecclesiastical authorities had recognized the right of the State to protect its citizens. Asked whether he would undertake that no further territory would be seized, he said that no annexations would be made except by mandate from the League of Nations. Asked whether other Governments were taking action, he said that the House should have all information as soon as he received it.

This had been in the afternoon. In the evening the Archbishop had asked the Lord Chancellor for permission to make a statement, and had then said that — in consultation with such other Bishops as happened to be in London — he had written at once that morning to the Prime Minister, definitely stating that the ecclesiastical authorities were entirely opposed to the dispatch of punitive expeditions, and begging that none should be sent. The Bishops were of the opinion that no secular action should be taken to avenge the martyrdom of the slaughtered missionaries and converts, and wished to dissociate themselves from any such action. A noble and indignant peer — a lately returned Governor–General — asked the Archbishop whether he realized that natives understood nothing but force, and whether he meant that war and the use of force was a sin; whether in short the Archbishop were disloyal or merely stupid. The Archbishop had referred the noble peer to the theologians for discussions and determinations of the use of force. The use of force was an act which was neither good nor evil in itself; the use of force in circumstances like the present appeared to himself and his colleagues a breach of Christian principles. Another peer demanded whether, if the Government were to dispatch punitive expeditions, the Archbishop would seriously accuse them of acting in an unchristian manner? The Archbishop said that the noble peer would remember that Christianity assumed a readiness for martyrdom as a mere preliminary to any serious work, and that he was sure no noble lord who happened to hear him and was a Christian would be unwilling to suffer tortures and death without wishing a moment’s pain to his enemies. He apologized to the House for reminding them of what might be called the first steps in a religion of which many of his hearers were distinguished professors. The House rose at nine minutes past seven.

“Dear me,” said Sir Bernard, putting down his paper.

Philip looked up from his own with a faint but perplexed smile. “Is this you, sir?” he said to Caithness.

“No”, Caithness answered, “I don’t think so. It seems pretty obvious, after all.”

“I had no idea the Archbishop was so venomous,” Sir Bernard said: “I think he certainly must believe in God. Mythology always heightens the style.”

Caithness said, rather sombrely, “Of course the Prime Minister will win in the end.”

“I should think it most likely,” Sir Bernard said. “What was it Gibbon said-‘all religions are equally useful to the statesman’! — Still, you’ve done your best. What do you want to do today?”

“I may as well go back to Yorkshire,” Caithness answered doubtfully. “I’ve been all the use I can be.”

“O nonsense,” Sir Bernard said. “Stay a little, Ian; we see precious little of you anyhow. Stay till the African army lands at Dover, and then we’ll all go to Yorkshire together — you and I, and Philip and Rosamond, and Roger and Isabel.”

Philip winced. His father’s remark struck him as merely being in bad taste. It was too remote even to be a joke. He said coldly “I suppose I’d better go to the office?”

“I think you should,” Sir Bernard assented. “You’ll be perfectly useless, of course. If it’s a case of Africa for the Africans, they’ll want to develop their own rivers, and as the Syndicate depended on Rosenberg it may not be able to develop itself. But you can find out the immediate prospects. The inquest will be tomorrow. What about coming to the inquest?”

“Why, are you going?” Philip asked.

“Certainly I am going,” Sir Bernard answered. “I met Rosenberg quite a number of times, and I’ve always wondered about him. His wife died a couple of years ago, and I fancy he’s been going to pieces ever since. No, Ian, not because of monogamy; no, Philip, not because of love. I’m sorry; I apologize to both of you, but it wasn’t. It was because he’d developed a mania for making, for her, the most wonderful collection of jewels in the world. He had them too — marvellous! Tiaras and bracelets and necklaces and pendants and earrings and so on. I met her occasionally — not so often as him, but sometimes, and she looked not merely like the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars, but like the other eleven million that Joseph didn’t know about. She was a magnificent creature, tall and rather large and dark, and she carried them off magnificently. In fact, she was a creation in terms of jewellery, the New Jerusalem turned upside down so that the foundations showed. And then she died.”

“Couldn’t he have still gone on collecting jewels?” Caithness asked scornfully.

“Apparently not,” Sir Bernard said mildly. “He saw them on her, you see; they existed in relation to her. And when she died they fell apart — he couldn’t find a centre for them. They were useless, and so he was useless. At least I suspect that’s what happened. You didn’t see her, so you won’t understand.”

Caithness gave a short laugh. “A noble aim,” he said.

“Well, it was his,” Sir Bernard remonstrated, still mildly. “And really, Ian, if it comes to comparisons, I don’t know that it was worse than collecting poems, like Roger, or events, like me. I might say, or souls like you, because you do collect souls for the Church just as Rosenberg collected jewels for his wife, don’t you?”

“The Church doesn’t die,” Caithness said.

“I know, I know,” Sir Bernard answered. “But that only means you’re more fortunate than Rosenberg in preferring a hypothesis to a person. At least, perhaps you are: it’s difficult to say. I’ve a good mind to ask Roger to come to the inquest too.”

“It seems rather gruesome,” Philip said, hesitating.

“O my dear boy,” Sir Bernard protested, “don’t let’s be adjectival. Here’s a rich man shot himself because of a difficulty with life. Is it really gruesome to want to know what that difficulty is and how much like the rest of our difficulties it was? But at your age you daren’t trust your own motives, and you’re probably right. At mine one has to trust them or one couldn’t enjoy them, and there’s not much opportunity to do anything else.”

Persuaded either by such maxims or from motives of equal potency both Philip and Roger did actually accompany Sir Bernard the next day, though Caithness refused. The court was certainly crowded but they managed, through some diplomatic work by Sir Bernard, to get in. The coroner, a short hairy official, dealt with everyone in the same sympathetic manner.

The evidence was brief and explicit. The butler who had found the body and summoned the police was called. His master (he said) had had one visitor that evening, a Mr. Considine (Sir Bernard looked at Roger, who sat up sharply). After Mr. Considine’s departure, about twelve, his master had called him in to witness his signature to a document, and had then dismissed him. It had been about a quarter of an hour later when he had thought he heard the sound of a shot in the study. He had gone there . . . and so on through the difficult time that followed. The police described their arrival, their examination. Doctors described the nature of the wound.

Mr. Considine was called.

Sir Bernard lay back in his seat and studied the witness, mentally comparing him to the photograph. It was absurd that they should be so much alike, he thought, when they must of course, be different. He gazed at him with an inexplicable curiosity that seemed strangely to become even more vivid when by chance Considine’s eyes, passing over the court, as he moved to the witness-box, met his. Roger was leaning eagerly forward, and a glance of recognition went between him and Considine. Philip felt and showed no particular interest.

Considine explained the reason for his visit. He had been on his way home after a dinner and had passed the deceased’s house; on an impulse he had determined to call, chiefly because he had been for some time . . . disturbed . . . about his state of mind. Deceased had, as people said; “lost hold”; he had no hope and no desire. He had lost interest alike in his business and in his amusements.

“Can you suggest what caused this breakdown?” the coroner interrupted. “His health — the doctor has told us — was quite good?”

“His health was good,” Considine answered, “but his health had no purpose, or rather that purpose had been destroyed. He had made for himself an image, and that image had been removed. His wife while she lived had been the centre of that image; the jewels in which he clothed her completed it. She died; he had no children, and he had not enough energy to discover some other woman whom he could display in a like manner. He had externalized in that adorned figure all his power and possession; it was his visible power, his acknowledged possession. The jewels themselves, magnificent as they were, were not sufficient. Also I think there returned on him something of a childish fear; he was terrified of the destruction that haunts life.”

“You tried to cheer him up?” the coroner said.

Considine paused for a moment. “I tried,” he said slowly, “to persuade him to live by his own power rather than by what could be at best only properties of it. I tried to persuade him to live from the depth of his wound rather than to pine away in the pain of it; to make the extent of his desolation the extent of his kingdom. But I failed.”

“I see — yes,” said the coroner vaguely. “You thought he needed bringing out of himself?”

Considine considered again, a longer pause. “I thought he needed to find himself,” he said at last, “and all of which himself was capable. But I could not work on him.”

“Quite, quite,” said the coroner. “I’m sure the sympathy of the Court is with you, Mr. Considine, in your regrets that your efforts were unavailing. I’ve no doubt that you did all that you could, but there it is — if a man won’t or can’t bestir himself, mere talk won’t help him. Thank you, Mr. Considine.”

“Good heavens!” Sir Bernard said to Roger in a smothered voice, “mere talk! Mere —”

The letter for the coroner was now produced, but carried things little further. It stated simply that Simon Rosenberg took all responsibility for the act of suicide, to which he had been driven by the full realization of the entire worthlessness of human existence. “We may, I think,” the coroner interrupted himself to say, “mark that sentence as evidence of a very abnormal state of mind.” Unconscious of the lowering glare which Roger turned on him, he went on: “There is enclosed with this brief letter another document which purports to be the deceased’s last will and testament. I have had the opportunity of submitting it to the deceased’s solicitors, Messrs. Patton & Fotheringay, and in order that you may have all the evidence possible on deceased’s state of mind before you I shall now read it.”

He proceeded to do so. It began normally enough, followed up this opening with a few legacies to servants, clerks, and acquaintances, and then in one magnificent clause left “the whole of the rest of the estate, real and personal, shares, jewels, houses, lands, and everything else from the smallest salt-cellar in the farthest shooting-lodge to the largest folio in the London library, to two second cousins, Ezekiel and Nehemiah Rosenberg, defined with all necessary exactitude as the grandchildren of the deceased’s grandfather’s younger brother Jacob Rosenberg.

“And I do this,” the strange document ran on, “because they have followed in the way of our fathers, and kept the Law of the Lord God of Israel, and because though I do not know whether there is any such God to be invoked or any such way to be trodden, yet I know that everything else is despair. If this wealth belongs to their God let him take it, and if not let them do what they choose and let it die.” Nigel Considine and the Grand Rabbi were named as executors, with a hope that though they had not been consulted they would not refuse to act.

There was a prolonged silence in court. Roger Ingram thought of several verses in Deuteronomy, a line or two of Milton, and a poem of Mangan’s. Sir Bernard wished he knew Nehemiah and Ezekiel Rosenberg. Philip thought it was a very peculiar way of making a will. The coroner proceeded to explain to the jury the difference between felo-dese and suicide while of unsound mind, with a definite leaning towards the second, of which (he suggested) “despair — to use the word chosen by the deceased — was, anyhow when carried to such an abnormal extent as the letter and will together seem to indicate, perhaps in no small measure a proof.” The jury, after a merely formal consultation, in the rather uncertain voice of their foreman agreed. The court rose.

On the steps outside, Sir Bernard and Roger instinctively delayed a little and were rewarded by seeing Considine come out. He was listening to a round-faced man who was probably either Mr. Patton or Mr. Fotheringay, but in a moment he noticed Roger, waved to him, and presently, parting from his companion, came across.

“So, Mr. Ingram,” he said, as he shook hands, “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“No,” Roger answered; “as a matter of fact I came with-” he completed an explanation with an introduction.

“But, of course I know Sir Bernard’s name,” Considine said. “Isn’t it he who explained the stomach?”

“Temporarily only,” Sir Bernard answered.

Considine shrugged. “While man needs stomachs,” he said, “which may not be for so very much longer. A very ramshackle affair at present, don’t you think?”

“In default of a better”, Sir Bernard protested, “what would you have us do?”

“But are we in default of a better?” Considine asked. “Surely we’re not like that poor wretch Rosenberg who couldn’t live by his imagination, but died starved, for all his stomach and his mind.”

“So far,” Sir Bernard said, “both the stomach and the mind seem normally necessary to man.”

“O so far!” Considine answered, “and normally! But it’s the farther and the abnormal to which we must look. When men are in love, when they are in the midst of creating, when they are in a religious flame, what do they need then either with the stomach or the mind?”

“Those”, Sir Bernard said, “are abnormal states from which they return.”

“More’s the pity,” Roger said suddenly. “It’s true, you know. In the real states of exaltation one doesn’t seem to need food.”

“So,” said Considine, smiling at him. “The poets have taught you something, Mr. Ingram.”

“But one returns,” Sir Bernard protested plaintively, “and ‘then one does need food. And reason,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

Considine was looking at Roger. “Will you say that one must?” he asked in a lower voice; and “O how the devil do I know?” Roger said impatiently. “I say that one does, but I daren’t say that one must. And it’s folly either way.”

“Don’t believe it,” Considine answered, his voice low and vibrating. “There’s more to it than that.”

The words left a silence behind them for a moment, as if they were a summons. Roger kicked the pavement. Philip waited patiently. Presently Sir Bernard said, “Do you know the legatees by any chance, Mr. Considine?”

Considine’s eyes glowed. “Now there,” he said, “if you like irony you have it. Yes, I know them — at least I know of them. I knew the family very well once. They are strict Jews, living in London because they are too poor to return to Jerusalem. They live in London and they abominate the Gentiles of London. They are fanatically — insanely, you would say — devoted to the tradition of Israel. They live, almost without food, Sir Bernard, studying the Law and nourished by the Law. They are the children of a second birth indeed, and they exist in the other life to which they were born. What do you think they will do with Simon Rosenberg’s fortune and Simon Rosenberg’s jewels?”

“They could, I suppose, refuse it,” Sir Bernard said.

“Couldn’t they use it to improve conditions in Palestine?” Philip asked, willing to appear interested.

Considine looked at Roger, who said, “I don’t know the tradition of Israel. Are jewels and fortunes any use to it?”

“Or will they think so?” Considine answered. “I do not know. But it was a Jew who saw the foundations of the Holy City splendid with a beauty for which the names of jewels were the only comparison. We think of jewels chiefly as wealth, but I doubt if the John of the Apocalypse did, and I doubt if the Rosenbergs will. Perhaps he saw them as mirrors and shells of original colour. However, I suppose, as one of the executors, it will be my business to find out soon.”

“It’s extraordinarily interesting,” Sir Bernard said. “Do, my dear Mr. Considine, let us know. Come and dine with me one day. I’ve something else I want to ask you.”

On the point of making his farewells Considine paused.

“Something you want to ask me?” he said.

“A mere nothing,” Sir Bernard answered. “I should like to know what relation you are to a photograph of you that I took fifty years ago.”

Roger stared. Philip moved uneasily; his father did put things in the most ridiculous way.

“A photograph of me,” Considine repeated softly, “that you took fifty years ago . . .?”

“I do beg your pardon,” Sir Bernard said. “But that’s what it looks like, though (unless you’ve improved the stomach out of all knowledge) it probably isn’t. I wouldn’t have bothered you if other subjects for discussion — jewels, digestion, and the tradition of Israel — hadn’t cropped up. But unless you take that unfortunate coroner’s view of ‘mere talk’, do be kind and come.”

Considine smiled brilliantly. “I do a little,” he said, “but I allow it is a purification, a ritual and actual purification of the energies. I’m rather uncertain how much longer I shall be in England for the present, but if it’s at all possible . . . Will you write or telephone or something in a day or two? My address is 29, Rutherford Gardens, Hampstead.”

“Hallo,” Roger said, “we’re up that way. My embalming workshop’s there,” he added sardonically.

Sir Bernard turned his head, a little surprised. Roger caught his eyes and nodded towards Considine.

“He knows,” he said. “I embalm poetry there —— with the most popular and best-smelling unguents and so on, but I embalm it all right. I then exhibit the embalmed body to visitors at so much a head. They like it much better than the live thing, and I live by it, so I suppose it’s all right. No doubt the embalmers of Pharaoh were pleasant enough creatures. They weren’t called to any nonsense of following a pillar of fire between the piled waters of the Nile.”

“It’s burning in you now,” Considine said, “and you are on the threshold of a doorway that the Angel of Death went in-not yours.”

“If I could believe it —” Roger said. “Ask me to dine too, Sir Bernard. I want to ask Mr. Considine questions about Paradise Regained.”

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