Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Five

The Neophyte of Death

The five of them were sitting at a round table — Considine at the head, Sir Bernard on his right, Roger on his left, Inkamasi next Roger, and Philip between the king and Sir Bernard. They were served by two men who, Sir Bernard remarked at once, were evidently not of the usual servant type. They were much more like young men of his own class, but they were adept at their work; only they waited with an air of condescension and if they had occasion to speak they never said “sir” except indeed to Considine and the king. Considine’s own manner towards them was that of an equal who accepts by right some special service; there existed between them a grave courtesy. Occasionally, while the dinner proceeded, one of these gentlemen in waiting would go to the door in answer to a discreet knock, receive a message, return to whisper it in Considine’s ear, and take back a softly murmured answer. But such secret interruptions did not interfere with the general conversation, which turned at first upon the Rosenberg crisis.

“You have talked to the legatees?” Sir Bernard said.

“Why, yes,” Considine smiled, “and they have taken a stand which might have been foreseen, which I did foresee. The solicitor and I— you remember Mr. Patton? — met them and the Chief Rabbi, and showed them the will. We had to go to them; they would not come to us. When I saw them I did not wonder at it. Their whole minds were given to other things. They are concerned — as how should they not be? — with one chief matter, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“Are they though?” Roger said. “And what will they do with the money?”

“What do you think?” Considine said. “What do you think, Sir Bernard? Remember that they are fanatical in their vision and desire.”

“Take it,” Sir Bernard answered, “and spend all that comes from it in Jerusalem.”

“Refuse it,” Philip said, as Considine lifted friendly eyebrows at him before looking at Roger, who considered, his head on one side.

“I don’t know them, of course,” he said, “but you encourage me to hope that the others are wrong. Take it — refuse it — something else. Take it and not take it . . . I know — take it and withdraw it, sell everything, and keep the result.”

“Exactly,” Considine answered. “They insist on selling out all the Rosenberg properties, and what they have from that — however large or small — they will spend on building the Temple again.”

“But the loss-?” Sir Bernard exclaimed. “It will take years, won’t it?”

“They are too old to spend years in patience,” Considine said. “They will have it done immediately, for fear they should die before the work is begun.”

“But can’t you stop them?” Philip said.

“Believing what I do believe,” Considine answered, “why should I stop them? It is a great act of creation; they prepare for Messias.”

“And the jewels?” Roger asked. “Are they to be sold too?”

“No,” Considine said; “those they will take as they are, ‘an oblation to the Holy of Holies, a recompense for iniquity and for that one of their house who has touched the unclean thing.’ I repeat their words.”

“If they ever get them to Jerusalem-” Roger suggested.

“That may be part of the executor’s business,” Considine answered. “I shall do my best for them while I’ve the time.”

“It’ll cause a good deal of disturbance,” Sir Bernard said thoughtfully. “Rosenberg was interested in a great deal, wasn’t he?”

“A great deal,” Considine agreed, adding with a faint smile, “Perhaps it was a little unfortunate that Patton, intending the best, pointed out that Rosenberg had religious interests which would be upset by such an action. He instanced a concern called the Anglo–Catholic Church and Home Adornment Society, which manufactured crucifixes and pictures of saints. Somehow Rosenberg was mixed up in it. It didn’t placate them.”

“Patton, I suppose,” Sir Bernard said, “felt that all religions meant the same?”

“I was sorry for him,” Considine said, again smiling faintly. “Even the Chief Rabbi could hardly quieten them. Yes, Sir Bernard. I don’t say that Patton’s wrong, but there remains the question of what religion all the religions mean.”

“Perhaps that’s what the African proclamations are trying to tell us,” Roger said. “Do you believe in them, Mr. Considine?”

“In what sense — believe?” Considine asked.

“D’you think they’re authentic?” Roger elaborated. “And if authentic, d’you think they mean anything?”

“Yes and yes,” Considine answered. “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be authentic — and if they are then I think they mean something definite. It is a gospel, perhaps a crusade, which is approaching.”

“Jolly for us,” Roger said. He shifted his eyes to Inkamasi, and said, “And what do you think?” thanking his gods that the other was next to him and that vocatives of address could therefore be avoided. How did one speak to a Zulu king?

Inkamasi looked up heavily. The last twenty-four hours, Sir Bernard thought, seemed to have dulled the young African. His eyes went to Considine, who said, “Yes; let the king tell us if he thinks this gospel has meaning.”

Why did Considine, he wondered, speak so, with such high gravity in his voice? He waited with interest for Inkamasi’s answer but when it came it took them but little farther. He answered the question, but no more. “Yes, I think it has a meaning,” he said, and his eyes fell again to his plate.

Sir Bernard looked back at Considine, who was (he noticed) eating very little, a few fragments of each course, a few sips of wine, and that with an air rather of courtesy than of interest or desire. He was behaving as a gracious host should, but what host was this who was waited on by gentlemen, who spoke of gospels and crusades, who seemed to dominate from his seat the visitors he permitted to speak freely? Sir Bernard said: “It’s a little cheap, isn’t it? ‘The conquest of death’?”

“You don’t desire the conquest of death?” Considine asked.

“I find a difficulty in understanding it here,” Sir Bernard said.

“Why?” Considine asked again.

Sir Bernard hesitated, and Roger broke in swiftly, “Because we’ve never heard of it happening, and because we’ve never noticed that reading poetry and being in love led to anything that looked like the conquest of death. At least, I can’t think of any other reason. What does it mean?”

“There are two things it might mean,” Considine said, “living for ever or dying and living again. And will you”— he leaned a little forward —“will you tell me, Mr. Ingram, that you haven’t felt one or both of these when you deal with great verse?”

Philip saw Roger’s face change. He was looking steadily at Considine, and he continued to look for more than a minute before he answered. In that time the sardonic and almost bitter humour which often showed in him, as if he were weary of fighting that stupidity against which “the gods themselves contend in vain”, and as if he despised himself both for strife and weariness — that half-angry mockery vanished, and it was with a sudden passionate sincerity that he said, “No, no; you’re right. One dies and lives in it, but I can’t tell how.”

“Only because you haven’t looked that way,” Considine said, with an illuminating smile. “You handle the stuff of the experiment, the stuff which the poets made, but they made it out of what is common to us all, and there are things which they, even they, never knew. And as for love, is there any one of us, since we are men and have loved, who doesn’t know that there is within the first moments of that divine delight some actuality of the conquest of death?”

Half by chance, his eyes rested on Philip, who, as if called by that commanding gaze from his habitual shyness and dislike of speech, stammered out: “Yes, but what is there to do? It’s like that, but what can I do?”

“You can know your joy and direct it,” Considine answered. “When your manhood’s aflame with love you will burn down with it the barriers that separate us from immortality. You waste yourselves, all of you, looking outwards; you give yourselves to the world. But the business of man is to assume the world into himself. He shall draw strength from everything that he may govern everything. But can you do this by doubting and dividing and contemplating? by intellect and official science? It is greater labour than you need.”

“Govern?” Sir Bernard put in. “What do you mean by governing the world? Ruling it, like Caesar?”

“Caesar”, Considine answered, “knew of it. I am sure he did. This man who had so many lovers, who could bear all hardships and use all comfort, who was not athlete or lover or general or statesman or writer, but only those because he was Caesar, who founded not a dynasty but a civilization, whose children we are, who dreamed of travelling to the sources of the Nile and sailed out to the strange island whither the Gallic boatmen rowed the souls of the dead, who was lord of all minds and natures, didn’t he dream of the sources of other waters and set sail living for a land where the spirits of other men are but helplessly driven? Rule the world? He was the world; he mastered it; the power that is in it burned in him and he knew it, he was one with it.”

“Caesar died,” Sir Bernard said.

“He was killed, he was destroyed, but he was not beaten and he did not die,” Considine answered. “Why does a man die but because he had not driven strength into the imagination of himself as living?”

Sir Bernard put his hand in the pocket of his dinner jacket, but he paused before withdrawing it, as the subdued but powerful voice swept on. “Caesar had the secret then, and if Antony had had it too Europe might have been a place of lordlier knowledge today. For he could have destroyed Octavian and he and the Queen of Egypt in their love could have presented the capacities of love on a high stage before the nations. But they wasted themselves and each other on the lesser delights. And what failed at Alexandria was unknown in Judea. Ah, if Christ had known love, what a rich and bounteous Church he could have founded! He almost conquered death in his own way, but he was slain like Caesar before he quite achieved. So Christianity has looked for the resurrection in another world, not here. The Middle Ages wondered at visions of the truth — alchemy, sorcery, fountains of youth, these are part of the dream. The Renascence knew the splendour but lost the meaning, and it was tempted by learning and scholarship, and ravaged by Calvin and Ignatius with their systems, and it withered into the eighteenth century. They did well to call that the Augustan age, for Caesar had fallen and Christ was but a celestial consolation. But the time is come very near now.”

Roger said, “But how? but how?”

Considine answered, “By the transmutation of your energies, evoked by poetry or love or any manner of ecstasy, into the power of a greater ecstasy.”

The photograph in Sir Bernard’s hand dropped on to the table; leaning forward, he said, his eyes bright with a great curiosity, “But do you tell us that you have done it?”

“I have done one thing,” Considine said. “I think I shall do the other when I have made a place for it on earth. I live, except for accident, as I choose and as long as I choose. It is two hundred years since I was born, and how near am I to-night to any kind of natural death?”

He did not exalt over them or seem to speak boastfully. He leaned back in his chair, and with an exalted certitude his eyes held them motionless, while his voice put to them that serene inquiry. Clear and triumphant, he smiled at them, and his gentlemen stood beside him, and his wine, hardly touched, glowed in its glass, as his own spirit seemed to glow in the purged and consummate flesh that held it. Philip remembered Rosamond’s thrice-significant body, and yet this body was more significant even than Rosamond’s, for here there arose no lovely and mournful mist of unformulated desire. And Roger’s mind, but half-consciously, sought to recall some great verbal wonder that should serve to express this wonder, and failed. Sir Bernard’s scepticism, forbidding incredulity, left him to savour the full possession of an unrivalled and exquisite experience. Only the Zulu king sat with his head on his hand and showed no knowledge of the talk that proclaimed immortality present in the shape of a man.

The minutes seemed to pass as the others gazed, yet they did not seem minutes, for time was lost. Nearer than ever before in their lives to a sense of abandoned discipleship, the two young men trembled before one who might be their predestined lord. It was Sir Bernard’s voice that broke the stillness.

“And this other thing?” he said. “What else is there you foresee?”

Considine smiled once more. “This is only a part,” he said. “Because I live, men shall live also. But they shall do greater works than I, or perhaps I shall do them — I do not know. To live on — that is well. To live on by the power not of food and drink but of the imagination itself recalling into itself all the powers of desire — that is well too. But to die and live again — that remains to be done, and will be done. The spirit of a man shall go out from his body and return into his body and revivify it. It may be done any day; perhaps one of you shall do it. There have been some who tried it, and though they have failed and are dead we know they were pioneers of man’s certain empire. It is what your Christ announced — it is the formula of man divinized —‘a little while and I am not with you, and again a little while and I am with you’. He was the herald of the first conqueror of death.”

There came at the door one of those discreet knocks, and a gentleman-inwaiting went lightly and returned to murmur a message. Considine listened and looked at his guests; then he added, ending what he had been saying, “and I will show you the intention that shall, one day, succeed.”

He murmured a few words to his servant who returned to the door and went out. Considine looked round the table and rose. “Let’s go into the other room for our coffee and perhaps you’ll be indulgent to me,” he said. “I generally have music played after dinner — can you listen for a few minutes without being bored?”

They murmured assurances, and stood up, following him as he moved from the room and on to another door which a servant opened for them. It was a long high room into which they came (to judge from the proportions visible), but a part of it was cut off by hanging curtains of an extraordinarily deep blue, a blue so deep that though it had not the blaze it had the richness of sapphire. Sir Bernard exclaimed when he saw it, and Considine said to him, “You see my travels also have not been in vain.”

“Where did you find this, then?” Sir Bernard said. “It beats the best stained glass I’ve ever seen.”

“It was woven for me once,” Considine answered, “in a village where they see colour as well as St. John saw it in his vision. Sit down here, won’t you?”

There were a group of comfortable chairs at the end of the room farthest from the curtains, and to these the visitors were, half-ceremonially, ushered. The gentleman in attendance offered cigars and cigarettes to all but Considine; when they were settled, he went over to the curtains and at a nod from his master drew them a little back. Beyond, through the opening, they could glimpse similar panelled walls to those between which they sat. Sir Bernard could see at the farther end of the room a group of figures, a cello, and violins. The gentleman in waiting, standing in the opening, made a sign with his hand, withdrew to the door, and remained standing there. The music began.

Both the Travers loved music; it was indeed — besides events — Sir Bernard’s only emotional indulgence, and he was therefore more on his guard against it than perhaps even his alert intelligence altogether realized. Philip was not far advanced in its obedience; he, in a despised but correct phrase, “knew what he liked,” and was humbly and properly aware that “he didn’t know much about it.” He prepared to listen, and for the first few minutes was engaged in trying to recognize some of the phrases that floated to him. He seemed to have heard them before, but he couldn’t place them; they were followed by other sounds which he knew he couldn’t place. It was, he supposed, “modern music”; there was at intervals something very like a discord. But as he listened he began to lose touch with it, and to think more and more of Rosamond. There was nothing surprising in this; he very often did think of Rosamond, with or without music. But he was thinking of her in harmony with the music. A rush and ripple of sound went through him and in his brain it was not so much sound as Rosamond’s visible form, the quivering line of her exquisite side; and the violins swept up more quickly and her round full neck grew up, in that beautiful dream and her chin became visible, and they slowed and sighed, and there between her welcoming arms and her breasts was a something of fullness and satisfaction which invited him, but not to her. For the music that so created her form in his imagination at the same time swept his imagination round and round her form, but its cry drove him from her. She seemed to be there; almost she moved her hands to him, the music moulded itself into her palms, but the force of it kept him from them. More clearly than ever before in his waking thoughts he saw the naked physical beauty that was Rosamond and would have drawn her to his heart, but that, darkly and deeply as never before, the energy of music which was in that beauty invited and adjured him to attend to itself alone. His blood flowed, his breath came heavily, in the growing intoxication of love, but the harmony that caused it summoned him back from its image to its power. He felt himself flowing away from Rosamond, with no less but with greater passion than he had seemed to flow towards it. His passion had reached a point of trembling stillness before, and had closed then, perhaps in a kiss or an uncertain caress, perhaps in a separation and a departure. But now it found no such sweet conclusion, and still as the sources of his strength were opened up, and the currents of masculinity released, still he, or whatever in that music was he, seemed to control and compel them into subterranean torrents towards hidden necessities within him. Flux and reflux existed at once, but he could not name the end to which the reflux turned. It should be dispelled into some purpose, but what? but what? He seemed to cry out, and he heard an answer; he heard Considine saying, “It is two hundred years since I was born, and how near am I to any kind of death?” That might well be; this strength within might well carry him on through two hundred years; time was only its measure, not its limit; its condition, not its control. “Feed; feed and live,” he heard a voice crying, and then the voice was itself but music, and the music receded, and he heard it mighty at a distance, and then less mighty but nearer, and at last, trembling all over, he realized how he was sitting, shaken and troubled, in a chair by the fireside, and how beyond the curtains the sound of the violins trembled also and died away. He looked round and met Roger’s eyes, and knew that in them also recognition was beginning slowly to return.

Roger never much cared for music, but he had not been sorry when it was proposed to him; imposed upon him, he was inclined to think, would have been a better term, since quite apart from politeness no-one would have dared object to Considine’s obvious intention. At least, Sir Bernard might; Sir Bernard could do most things, but Roger was quite clear that neither Philip nor himself would. But he didn’t object, even mentally; he rather welcomed the suggestion, since he, not caring for music, would have a little while to order his confused ideas. Considine’s conversation — especially with this two-century climax — had got rather beyond them. Besides, he wanted to try and see what he meant by agreeing to the statement that all great art seemed to hold contemporaneous death and new life. He settled himself, glanced indolently towards the distant musicians, and looked for a line to experiment on. It ought to be a good line; he picked out, “And thus the Filial Godhead answering spake.” The music, he was aware, had begun. Very well then: now. The simple analysis, the union of opposites which so often existed in verse, was clear enough. There was the opposition of the Latin “Filial” and the English “God,” and of the ideas expressed in those words — Filial, implying subordination and obedience; Godhead — authority, finality. Something similar was true also of “answering” and “spake.” That was elementary — but about death . . . the music was getting in his way; bother the music — the words were becoming a kind of guide to it, not to his thoughts. His thoughts showed him the lovely and delicate manipulation of . . . of what? Words; the association of words: “the Filial”— a twist and cry of the violins broke sharply on him —“Godhead.” “Filial”— he was filial to something; filial —— the subordination of himself in the presence of something, of godhead, the godhead this triumphant sound was speeding through his consciousness; filial — the smooth vowels and labials, the word that was he sliding so easily in and through the energy of the whole line, an energy that broke out in the explosive consonants of “Godhead.” Filial — that was to die, to be drawn down by this music into reconciliation with something that answering spake. But it was he that answering spake . . . answering, answering, answering, what but that which spake? “Spake, spake,” the notes sang out; not saying “spake” but sounding it; they were speaking. It — the word, the sound, was itself speaking; “spake” was only an echo of what it said. “The Filial Godhead answering spake”— and Roger Ingram was being left behind, even the Roger Ingram that loved the line, for the line was driving him down to answer it by dying and living, to be nothing but a filial godhead. Milton was but a name for a particular form of this immortal energy: the line was but an opportunity for knowing the everlasting delight, the ecstasy of all those elements that combined in its passionate joy, knowing it by being part of it. His intellect had shown him the marvellous glories of the line, but as he passed into it and between its glories his intellect revealed itself but as one of the elements. A moral duty swept him on. This energy was to be possessed, to possess him, and then — then he would have time to find yet greater powers even than that. Power, power —“the Power so-called through sad incompetence of human speech”; even the great poets were but sad incompetence; nothing but the transmutation of even the energy they gave could be an answer to the energy they took from some source beyond them. He hung, poised, unconscious of himself repeating words silently and very slowly, opening himself to them: “sad incompetence of human speech”—“thus the Filial Godhead answering spake.” And the violins descanted on it, and slowly died away; and as slowly he came to himself and looked up to meet Philip’s welcoming and inquiring eyes.

The music ceased. Considine stood up and came over to his guests. “Did you care for it?” he asked.

No-one found it possible to answer immediately; at last Sir Bernard, with a sudden movement, came to his feet. He looked at Considine, and against the other’s majestic form his smaller figure seemed to gather itself together. He looked, and said, in a voice not without a note of victory, “Well, I kept my head.”

“You are proud of that?” Considine asked disdainfully. Sir Bernard shrugged. “It fulfils its function,” he said. “I like to take my music like a gentleman. What was it?”

“It was made by one of my friends,” Considine said. “He had overcome all things except music, but that lured him to spend his power and he died. We feed on what he did that we may do more than he.”

“But-” Roger began, arrested by something in these words, “but do you mean — is it a waste to make music?”

“Mustn’t it be?” the other asked. “If you want more than sound it’s a waste to spend power making sound, as it’s a waste to spend on the beloved what’s meant to discover more than the beloved.”

“But this means the death of everything!” Roger exclaimed.

“And if so?” Considine asked. “Yet it isn’t so. It’s possible to make out of the mere superfluity of power greater things than men now spend all their power on. The dropping flames of that fire are greater than all your pyres of splendour. And when death itself is but passion of ecstasy, we will make music such as you couldn’t bear to hear, and we will be the fathers of the children who shall hear it. Listen to the prophecy.”

He turned and nodded to the gentleman in waiting, who had after the music ceased again drawn the curtains, and now went out of the room. Considine left his guests together and returned to a small table near the curtains. The only light in the room came from a tall standard near him, so that Sir Bernard and the others were clustered in the shadows and not clearly to be seen.

Roger glanced at the African, sitting by him almost as if asleep, and then looked back again at Considine. He stood there, an ordinary gentleman in an ordinary dinner jacket, but the black of the clothes and the tie, the white of the front and the cuffs, gathered into a kind of solemn insignia. Roger saw him, against the immense and universal sapphire of the draperies behind him, a figure in hieratic dress, motionless, expectant, attentive, having power to give or to withhold, as if an Emperor of Byzantium awaited between the East and the West the approach of petitions he only could fulfil. His hands were by his sides, his head was a little thrown back, his eyes were withdrawn as if he meditated, and behind him the vast azure hung as if it were a cloak some attendant had but that moment removed and still held spread out before he folded it. Modern, contemporary — antique, mythical — neither of these were the truth. He stood as something more than either, being both and more than both. It was Man that stood there, man conscious of himself and of his powers, man — powerful and victorious, bold and serene, a culmination and a prophecy. Time and space hung behind him, his background and his possession, themselves no more separate but woven in a single vision, the colour of the living background to that living domination. “Death itself but passion of ecstasy”— death itself might well have been lying at those feet in black, shining and pointed gear, as in delicate armour, at the direction of the hands which fell from between the stiff, shining and sacerdotal cuffs. The ritual of a generation was changed into a universal ritual; so for Philip Rosamond had turned her dresses into significance; so always and in all places have the gods when they walked among men changed into their own permanent sacramental habits the accidental raiment of the day.

Phrases of the talk rushed back into Roger’s mind — other phrases of the proclamation of the High Executive —“moments of the exalted imagination”: here and now was such a moment, here and now that imagination made itself visible before him and overwhelmed him with its epiphany.

The door opened. Considine turned his head. The gentleman in waiting stood aside and said in a low clear voice: “Colonel Mottreux and Herr Nielsen.” Two men came into the room. The first was a tall, lean, rather hatchet-faced man, not unlike Roger himself, but with fiercer and more hungry eyes, as Roger’s might have been had all the real placability which his love of Isabel and his service of poetry gave him been withdrawn. He looked like a soldier but an ambitious soldier who doubts his future; only as he bowed abruptly to Considine he showed a not merely military subordination; his eyes fell and did not for a moment recover. There came after him a different figure — a man German-built, sunburnt and weather-beaten, but still young, or young anyhow he seemed to those who watched, though in the new spiritual air they breathed they were aware that youth and age might have other meanings than usual in terms of time. He bowed much more deeply than Mottreux, and once well in the room he halted while the other went forward.

“My dear Mottreux,” Considine said, not moving, but smiling and holding out his hand. Colonel Mottreux pressed it lightly, almost deferentially; his eyes went to the guests.

“These gentlemen have been dining with me,” Considine said. “I’ve wished them to remain a little. We’ll talk of your other business later, Mottreux. Let Herr Nielsen tell me his purpose first.”

Mottreux stood aside and motioned to Nielsen who came forward and halted two or three steps away.

Considine stretched out his hand, and the other bowed over it, genuflecting a little at the same time as if he were in a royal or sacerdotal presence. But he came erect again and faced his suzerain with an air almost as august as his own. His face was ardent with a profound resolution; to say that “his soul was in his eyes” was no description but a definition. They burned with a purpose and Considine’s looked back at them as if he received that purpose and confirmed it.

“Why have you come to me?” he asked, gently, and as if it were a ritual rather than a necessary interrogation.

“I have come to beg for the permission,” the other said.

“The permission is in yourself,” Considine answered. “I only hear it, but that it’s right that I should do. Are you a child of the Mysteries?”

“Since you showed them to me,” Nielsen said.

“That was fifty years ago,” Considine answered, and the watchers in the shadow thrilled and trembled as they heard the calm voice, and that which, equally calm, replied, “I’ve followed them since.”

“Tell me a little,” Considine said, and the other considering, answered, “I have endured love and transmuted it. I have found, when I was young, that the sensual desires of man can be changed into strength of imagination and a physical burden become the bearer of the burden. I have transmuted masculine sex into human life. I am one of the masters of love. And I’ve done this with all things — whatever I have loved or hated, I have poured the strength of every love and hate into my own life and what is behind my life, and now I need love and hate no more.”

He paused, and Considine said, shooting one swift glance towards his guests: “Is this a greater or lesser thing than hate or love?”

“Sir, it’s strength and health beyond describing,” Nielsen said. “But it’s now that I long to go farther.”

Considine turned and faced him full, asking “What will you do now?”

“I will go down to death and come again living,” the other said.

Considine’s eyes searched him long in silence: then he said slowly, “You may not come again.”

“Then let me die in that moment,” the other cried out. “That’s nothing; it doesn’t matter; if I fail, I fail. But it’s not by dreaming of failure that the master of death shall come. Haven’t you told us that this shall be? and it’s in my heart now to raise my body from death. I’m not like you; I’m not necessary in this moment to the freeing of men; let me set free the fire that’s in us; let me go to break down the barriers of death.”

He flung out his hands and caught Considine’s; he poured upon his lord the throbbing triumph of his belief and his desire. Considine’s voice, fuller and richer than any of the hearers had known it, answered him: “The will and the right are yours, not mine. I’m here only to purge, not to forbid. There must be those who make the effort and some may never come again, but one at any moment shall. Go, if you will; master corruption and the grave; make mortal imagination more than immortal; die and live.”

Nielsen dropped on a knee, but his face was turned upwards to Considine’s who, stooping, laid his hands on the other’s shoulders. Behind the two exalted figures the deep blue of the curtains seemed to be troubled as if distance itself were shaken with the cry and the command. The splendour of colour quivered with the neighbourhood of the ecstasy of man imagining the truth of his being, and creating colour by the mere movements of his imagination. The two were alone, alone in a profound depth of azure distance, so greatly did their passion communicate itself to the things that had been made out of like passion. The woven colour and the woven music had been made at some similar depth of devotion, and all that mingled intensity swept through and filled the room, so that the imaginations of Roger and Philip felt and moved in it, and Philip, panting almost with terror, felt the music he had heard and the colour he saw and the figures before him gather and lose themselves in one piercing consciousness of Rosamond, which yet was not Rosamond but that of which Rosamond was a shape and a name; and Roger felt phrases, words, half-lines, pressing on him, and yet not words or lines but that which they defined and conveyed-and before them Considine cried again to the ardent postulant of transmuted energy: “Die then, die, exult and live.”

Only the Zulu king lay back as if asleep in his chair, and in his Sir Bernard, freed from the temptation of music, watched and savoured and keenly enjoyed every moment of the incredibly multitudinous and changing fantasy which was mankind. He wouldn’t deny that he was looking at a man two hundred years old telling a man of, say, seventy to die and live again; it might be-it was unusual but it might be. He couldn’t imagine himself wanting to die and live, because that (it seemed to him) would be to spoil the whole point of death. The worst of death was that it was the kind of experience it was very difficult to appreciate in the detached mood of the spectator, let alone the connoisseur. But he had done his best in his own case by rehearsing to himself — and occasionally to Philip — all the ironies which the approach of death often releases on a man. “I may babble obscenities or make a pious confession to Caithness,” he had said. “Or I may just lie about and cry for days. One never knows. Try and enjoy it for me, Philip, if I’m past it. I should like to feel that somebody did, and death so often undoes all one’s own hypotheses, even the hypothesis that one isn’t important.” But he feared that Philip wouldn’t find it easy to enjoy.

He thought of this for a moment as he watched Nielsen rising slowly to his feet; he thought of it as he looked at the benediction which Considine’s face shed on the new adventurer. They were still speaking to each other but he couldn’t hear what was being said; he saw Mottreux come forward, and then he saw the Colonel and Nielsen bowing and going to the door. He drew a deep breath and lay back in his chair, but he was immediately distracted by Philip who said in a low voice, “I can’t stand any more of this; I’m going.”

On the other side Roger also moved. “It’s true,” he said. “He’s right.”

Sir Bernard, a little startled, looked at him. Was Roger becoming a convert to this new gospel? He said, “You believe in him?”

“No,” Roger said, “but I believe he knows what poetry is, and I’ve never met a man before who did.”

Before Sir Bernard could answer Considine came over to them, and instinctively, in fear or hostility or homage, they all rose. “You see,” he said, “there are those who will try the experiment.”

“Must I really believe,” Sir Bernard said, “that that friend of yours is going to commit suicide with the idea of animating his body all over again?”

“Exactly that,” Considine said.

Sir Bernard sighed a little. “It is a religion,” he said. “And I hoped that man was becoming sane. I think I should dislike you, Mr. Considine, if dislike were ever really worth while.”

“And I should have despised you once, Sir Bernard,” Considine answered, “but not now. Before you die you shall know that the world is being made anew.”

He had hardly spoken when they heard without, as if it echoed, applauded, and proclaimed his words, a sound distant indeed but recognizable, though for a moment they doubted. It was the noise of guns firing. Faint and certain it reached them. Philip and Roger jumped, and even Sir Bernard turned his head towards the window. Considine, watching them, smiled. “Can it be the African planes?” he asked ironically. “Has intellect failed to guard its capital?”

A shout or two came up to them from without, the noise of running feet, a whistle, several cars passing at great speed. Sir Bernard looked back at Considine. “Are you bombing London then?” he asked politely.

“I,” Considine laughed at him. “Am I the High Executive? Ask the Jews who believe in Messias, or Mr. Ingram who believes in poetry, or your son who (I think) believes in love, or the king who believes in kingship, ask them what power threatens London to-night. And ask them if they think glory can be defeated by gunpowder.”

“I should think it might, if glory is making use of petrol,” Sir Bernard said. “I’m sorry that in the circumstances perhaps we’d better go. If your friend’s blown to bits by a bomb he’ll find it a trifle difficult to revivify his body, won’t he?”

“The Christian Church for a considerable time believed it could be done,” Considine said. “But I forget that you’re not even a Christian.”

Roger broke in. “My God!” he said, harshly, “are you bombing London?”

Considine changed in an instant from mockery to seriousness. “Be at ease,” he said. “Mrs. Ingram’s perfectly safe — except indeed from the mobs whom alone your wise brains have left to be the degraded servants of ecstasy. The only deaths to-night will be sacrifices of devotion.”

Sir Bernard walked towards the door; a white and bewildered Philip went along with him. Roger lingered a moment.

“I don’t know whether I hate or adore you,” he said, “and I don’t know whether you’re mad or I. But —”

“But either way,” Considine interrupted, “there is more in verse than talk about similes and metres, and you know it. Hark, hark, there is triumph speaking to man.”

The guns sounded again and Roger ran after his friends.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/williams/charles/shadows-of-ecstasy/chapter5.html

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