Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Three

The Proclamation of the High Executive

BY the time that Philip arrived home that evening the wildest rumours about Africa were being spread. At the office things had been during the last few days as bad as he had feared they might be, and he had been as useless as Sir Bernard had expected. Nothing had been heard from or of Munro for some weeks. Rosenberg’s suicide and, even more distressingly, his will, had startled and bothered the Stuyvesants to an indescribable degree. The motive power behind them, the object of motion in front, had both disappeared in blood; and no-one had the least idea what would happen. The Rosenberg legatees had been traced by mid-day; they were living in small upper rooms in Houndsditch, served by an old woman of their race. Extraordinary efforts had been made to procure interviews with them; unsuccessfully, since they merely refused to speak. There were, certainly, in the afternoon papers, sketches of them, but that was hardly the same thing. Even Governments were by way of being interested; high personages gazed at the reproductions dubiously. The two brothers looked as if they might be incapable of realizing the responsibilities of their present position. Two old, bearded, and violent faces stared out at England from journalistic pages. England stared back at them, and for the most part, quite reasonably, abandoned its interest. The Chief Rabbi also refused to be interviewed. Mr. Considine was interviewed, very unsatisfactorily, since he in effect refused to foreshadow, forestall, or foretell anybody’s intention. Philip read certainly that Mr. Considine had said that he was sure that-there was no need for any public anxiety, that good sense (a quality which the Jews, he was reported to have declared, possessed to a marked degree) would distinguish the actions of the Rosenberg brothers, and that in the present critical times all minor racial prejudices must be set aside. By which Philip understood him to mean that racial prejudice in regard to Africa must swallow up the rest, as the serpent of Moses swallowed the others. He didn’t feel quite convinced that Considine who on the steps of the coroner’s court had exclaimed to Roger that a pillar of fire was burning in him had said all that. In the other columns of the papers racial prejudice was getting a firm hold.

There were articles by anthropologists, with diagrams of negro heads; articles by explorers, with photographs of kraals; articles by statisticians, with columns of figures; articles by historians, with reproductions of paintings of Vasco da Gama, Thotmes III, Chaka, and others; articles by bishops and famous preachers on missions, with photographs of Christian negroes, converted and clothed; articles by politicians on the balance of power in Africa with maps curiously tinted; articles by military experts on possible strategy, with maps lined and blobbed. There were letters from peace champions and war invalids. There were, in short, all the signs of the interest which the public was believed to feel. Philip at last abandoned them and fell back on consideration.

Except for that one remark on the pillar of fire, and the mysterious allusion to the foundations of the New Jerusalem, he hadn’t noticed anything special in Considine’s conversation, but those two did rather stand out. If Considine had not obviously been a . . . well, a gentleman, Philip would have suspected him of belonging to the Salvation Army. Of course, he had been talking to Roger, and Roger’s own language was apt to be unbalanced. There were moments when Philip, what with his father and Roger, and even his godfather, with his refusal to allow martyrs to be avenged, felt that he was surrounded by eccentrics. He thought with relief and delight of Rosamond; Rosamond wasn’t eccentric. She was so right, so peaceful, so beautifully the thing. She was a kind of centre, and all the others vibrated in peculiar poses on the circumference. She herself had no circumference, Philip thought, ignorant of how closely he was striving after St. Augustine’s definition: “God is a circle, whose centre is everywhere and His circumference nowhere.” She was small and dainty and she moved, as it were, in little pounces. And yet she was so strong; it was as if strength pretended to be weak. No, it wasn’t that, for after all, she did need protection — his protection; she was strong enough to need no other and weak enough to need his. Philip took that decision quite seriously; in the economy of the universe he was not perhaps finally wrong. For he was very innocent in love, and the awful paradoxes which exist in that high passion and are an outrage to rational argument were natural to him rather because of his innocence than because of his egotism. That innocence might turn to egotism; that candid belief of his heart be hardened by his pride and turned from a simplicity to a stupidity. But at the moment he was very much in love, and in love he had not yet reached an age capable of sin. He was still a child of the new birth; maturity of intellect as of morals was far distant.

Such a childhood he owed partly, surprised as he would have been to heat it, to his father. The placid irony of Sir Bernard’s contemplation of life distilled itself over the wisdom of this world equally with that of every other. Dante was to him no more ridiculous than Voltaire; disillusion was as much an illusion as illusion itself. A thing that seemed had at least the truth of its seeming. Sir Bernard’s mind refused to allow it more but it also refused to allow it less. It was for each man to determine how urgent the truth of each seeming was. Philip had not been discouraged from accepting the seemings of his own world, of school, University, and business; but he had been subtly encouraged to give free play to his own individual phenomena. A thing might not be true because it appeared so to him, but it was no less likely to be true because everyone else denied it. The eyes of Rosamond might or might not hold the secret origin of day and night, but if they apparently did then they apparently did, and it would be silly to deny it and equally silly not to relish it. Sir Bernard had never said this in so many words. But the atmosphere which he created was one in which such spiritual truths could thrive unhindered, and their growth depended upon their own instinctive strength.

Serenely unconscious of what he owed, Philip felt his own serious growth wiser than that cool air of gracious scepticism. He thought his passion was hidden from it as from the sun, when in fact it throve in it as in the soft rains. He said nothing of Rosamond’s eyes — which certainly were not, to Sir Bernard, anything remarkable — to his father, and supposed that the unformulated gospel they taught him was also a secret. He said nothing of them to anyone indeed, not having, nor caring to have, that tendency towards talk which marked his future brother-inlaw. Roger, out of sheer interest, had given him every opportunity, and was rather disappointed that not one was taken. “I’m sure I talked enough about you,” he complained to Isabel.

“You’re more interested in metaphysics,” she said. “Philip’s just a believer; you’re a theologian.”

“I’ve a more complex matter to study,” he said. “If I were a poet I would make the Matter of Isabel equal to the Matter of France and the Matter of Britain.”

“My honour wars with my credulity,” she answered. “I’m not really more interesting than Rosamond but I like to think I am.”

“I don’t think Sir Bernard approves of Rosamond,” Roger said meditatively. “Why not, do you suppose? Can he really not think her good enough? Does he secretly adore Philip? My son, my son, and all that?”

Isabel was silent for a minute; then she said: “I’m awfully tempted to tell you, Roger, but perhaps I won’t. I do think I know what he feels, but it’d be rather hard on Rosamond to talk of it, wouldn’t it?”

“Devil!” said Roger. “You’d see your husband die of an insatiable curiosity rather than sully your integrity by giving him a crust of fact. You’re as bad as the other Isabella — the one in Measure for Measure; you’re avaricious of chastity. I don’t want to be nice; I want to be malign and malevolent and omniscient. Very well; have it your own way. I shall now go and lecture on Pure Women in Literature, with sub-sardonic allusions to you, Shakespeare’s Isabella, and Mr. Richardson’s Pamela. And I shall be back, in a bad temper, to tea.”

It was to tea on the same day that, when he did return, he found Philip had invited himself, having abandoned the distracted office for an hour with Rosamond. Isabel had come in from an afternoon’s walk, and when they all met in the drawing-room it was she who said: “Roger, you’re looking very serious. What’s the matter, darling? Didn’t they remember who Pamela was, or did they think she was nice, or what?”

Ingram stretched himself in an armchair. “Have any of you”, he asked, “seen an evening paper?”

“Not since two o’clock,” Philip said. “Is there something important?”

“That”, Roger answered, “depends on what you think important. There’s an African proclamation.”

“What!” Philip was so surprised that his eyes left Rosamond’s hair to rest on the newspaper that Roger was holding. “Is there really? What does it say?”

“It says that the Socratic method is done for,” Roger said seriously. A small frown appeared on Rosamond’s face and went away again. Philip, without frowning, conveyed the impression of a frown and said: “Do be serious. It’s important to me to know. What does it say?”

“It says exactly what I’ve told you,” Roger said, more sardonically. “It says you think too much, Philip, and it says your father is just the last kind of mistake. It’s no use blaming me. I didn’t write it. I’m not even sure that I know what it means.”

Isabel, taking a sandwich, said: “Read it, Roger. The Socratic method doesn’t really help one to choose a frock. I know because I tried it once. I said, ‘Must not a colour which suits me, and a cut that I admire, be desirable? It would seem so, Socrates.’ And yet it wasn’t. Do read it.”

Philip, having thus been defrauded of his protest, waited in the silence of injured decency to hear more. Rosamond looked at him sympathetically. Roger dropped two of his papers, opened the third, and read.

“Alleged Statement by African Leaders. Document received by Foreign Office and Press. Where is the High Executive? African Aims Reported to be Disclosed. By the mid-day post a document was received at the offices of all the London newspapers which is, with all reserves in regard to its authenticity, given below. The editors of the London papers have been in communication with the Foreign Office, and learn that a precisely similar document has been received there. Not only so, but the Foreign Offices and the Press of other European countries have also been communicated with in the same way. In Paris and Madrid this alleged manifesto has already been published, and the British Government, after consultation with the editors, has raised no objection to its publication here. If it is genuine — a question which is being investigated — it pretends to offer some kind of explanation of the late remarkable events in Africa. The manifesto, or proclamation, as it might be called, is as follows:

“‘In the name of the things that have been and are to be, willed and fated, in the name of the gods many and one, the Allied Supremacies of Africa, acting by the will and speaking by the voice of the High Executive, desire to communicate to the rest of the world the doctrine and purpose of the cause in which they are engaged. They announce their immediate purpose to be the freeing of the African continent from the government and occupation of the white race; their farther purpose to be the restoration to mankind of powers which have been forgotten or neglected, and their direction to ends which have hitherto been unproclaimed. They announce their profound belief that, as to the European peoples in the past, so to themselves in the future the conscious leadership of mankind belongs. It is not an imposed but an emerging leadership, superior to its disciples as to its enemies because of the conscious potentialities which exist in it. The potentialities of that superiority do not attempt to deny the capacities of Europe in their own proper achievements. The High Executive of the African Allies desires, in its first public summons to the creative powers of the world, to honour the immortal finalities of the past. It salutes the intellect, the philosophies, the science, the innumerable patterns of Europe. But it asserts that the great age of intellect is done, nor was the intellect ever that power which its disciples have been encouraged to believe. The prophets of Africa, who are not found only among its own peoples but include many of other races both in the past and in the present — the prophets of Africa have seen that mankind must advance in the future by paths which the white peoples have neglected and to ends which they have not understood. Assured that at this time the whole process of change in mankind, generally known as evolution, is at a higher crisis than any since mankind first emerged from among the great beasts and knew himself; assured that by an equal emergence from intellectual preoccupations, the adepts of the new way have it in their power to lead, and all mankind has it in its power to follow, not certainly by the old habits of reason but by profounder experiments of passion, to the conquest of death in the renewed ecstasy of vivid experience; assured of these things the Allied Supremacies appeal to the whole world for belief and discipleship and devotion.’”

Roger paused and looked up. Rosamond, again frowning a little, was eating cake. Philip was listening with his mouth open and his eyes staring. Isabel was attending with a serious and serene care. Roger grinned at her and resumed.

“‘The peoples of Africa appear before the world in arms, in order to claim from the sovereign authorities of Europe that freedom which is their due and their necessity on the one hand; on the other their privilege and opportunity, They will and they are fated to achieve that freedom. But their arms are of defence and not of aggression. They are willing to concede all possible time and convenience to the Powers of Europe. They no more desire to waste their energies and those of their opponents on war than on any other lower exterior imitation of heroic interior conquest. They are not anxious that the discipleship of the European imagination should be made more difficult by the mundane stupidities of dispute and battle. But the administration of Africa by the white race is now a thing of the past — to be remembered only as intellectual sovereignty will be remembered, a necessary moment that was willed and was fated and has ceased.

“‘To those among the peoples of Europe who know that their lives have origin and nourishment in the great moments of the exalted imagination, the High Executive offers salute and recognition’"— Roger’s voice began to linger over the words —”‘to all who owe their devotion to music, to poetry, to painting and sculpture, to the servants of every more than rational energy; greater than those and more numerous, to all who at this present moment exist in the exchanged or unexchanged adoration of love, it calls more especially. There, perhaps more surely and swiftly than in any other state of being outside the transmuting Way, can the labour of exploration be begun; there is the knowledge, the capacity, the herald apprehension of victory. These visionaries are already initiate; they know in themselves the prophecy of the conquest of death. To all such the High Executive appeals, with ardour and conviction. Believe, imagine, live. Know exaltation and feed on it; in the strength of such food man shall enter into his kingdom.

“‘The High Executive permits itself to offer to the Christian Churches its congratulations on the courage and devotion of those their servants who have sustained death by martyrdom. Convinced as it is that the Churches have, almost from the beginning, been misled by an erring principle, it nevertheless honours those martyrs as sublime if misguided instances of that imagination which it is its purpose to make known to mankind and which the rites and dogmas of the Christian religion dimly proclaim. It is assured by its belief in man and by the exalted courage of those martyrs that they would have desired no other end, and it takes full responsibility for having advised its august sovereigns that they could bestow on Christian missionaries no more perfect gift.

“‘The High Executive will be prepared to send representatives at any time to any place fixed by the Powers of Europe or by any of them; or to enter into negotiations in any other way that the Powers may desire. It will assume the fixing of such time and place or the opening of such negotiations to be a guarantee of safe-conduct for its representatives, and it will be prepared to suspend as soon as possible the military, naval, and aerial operations upon which it is engaged.

“‘Given in London, by direction of the High Executive, in the First Year of the Second Evolution of Man.”’

Roger stopped. Almost before his voice had ceased, Rosamond said: “Philip, darling, you haven’t eaten anything. Have a cake?” Philip for once took no notice. Roger said: “About a thousand words — a little more. Allowing for recapitulations in its extremely rhetorical style — the High Executive hasn’t studied the best models — say, seven-fifty. Either pure waste or the most important seven-fifty words I’ve ever read.”

“I haven’t got the hang of it,” Philip said in bewilderment. “What does it mean?”

“It — what did it say? — it calls to you more especially, Philip,” Roger went on. “It salutes you, because you have the vision of the conquest of death in the exchanged adoration of love. It expects you to do something about it all at once.” His eyes lingered on Isabel, and then became abstracted. He sighed once and got to his feet. “I’ll have some more tea,” he said. “The cup that cheers but not inebriates after words that inebriate but do not cheer.”

Isabel, pouring out the tea, said: “Don’t they cheer you, dearest?”

“Not one bit,” Roger answered. He leaned gloomily against the mantelpiece, and after a pause said suddenly, “Well, Rosamond, and what do you make of it?”

Rosamond answered coldly. “I wasn’t listening, I don’t think it’s very nice, and really, Roger, I don’t see why you need have read it.”

“The High Executive of the African peoples asked me to,” Roger said perversely. “What don’t you like about it — giving up intellect or having the vision of the conquest of death?”

“I think you’re simply silly, Roger,” Rosamond exclaimed and stood up. “And if it was written by a lot of . . . a lot of Africans, that makes it more disgusting than ever. I don’t think it ought to have been printed.”

Isabel spoke before Roger, sadistically watching Rosamond, could reply. “Do you think it’s authentic, Roger?” she asked.

“My dear, how can I guess?” her husband answered, more placably; then he shifted his position, and added: “It’s authentic enough in one way; there is something more.”

Isabel smiled at him. “But need we think we didn’t know it already?” she asked softly. “It isn’t very new, is it?”

He was looking across the room at the high bookcase.

“If they came alive,” he murmured, “if they are alive — all shut up in their cases, all nicely shelved — shelved — shelved. We put them in their places in our minds, don’t we? If they got out of their bookcases — not the pretty little frontispieces but the things beyond the frontispieces, not the charming lines of type but the things the type means. Dare you look for them, Isabel?” As he still stared at the bookcase his voice altered into the deeper sound of a subdued chant.

“He scarce had ceased when the superior fiend was moving towards the shore:

“‘Hid in its vacant interlunar cave And thus the Filial Godhead answering spake.’”

Rosamond said sharply: “Do be quiet, Roger. You know I hate your quoting.”

“Quoting!” Roger said, “quoting!” and stopped in despair. He looked at Philip as if asking him whether he couldn’t do something.

Philip didn’t see the look; he was meditating. But the silence affected him at last; he raised his eyes, and was on the point of speaking when Rosamond interrupted, slipping her hand through his arm. “Don’t talk about it any more, darling,” she said; “it’s too horrid. Look, shall I come as far as the Tube with you?”

He stirred — rather heavily, Roger thought — but as their eyes met he smiled back at her, and only Isabel’s hand prevented her husband from again quoting the High Executive on the exchanged adoration of love. It was therefore with a slight but unusual formality that farewells were spoken, and Philip departed for the station.

Roger remained propped against the mantelpiece, but he said, viciously, “She ‘wasn’t listening’!”

Isabel looked at him a little anxiously. “Don’t listen too carefully, darling,” she said. “It’s not just cowardice — to refuse to hear some sounds.”

He pulled himself upright. “I must go and work,” he said. “I must exquisitely water the wine so that it may be tolerable for weak heads.” By the door he paused. “Do you remember your Yeats?” he asked.

“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? I wonder. Also I wonder where exactly Bethlehem is, and what are the prodigies of the birth.”

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