Shadows of Ecstasy, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eight

Passing Through the Midst of Them

There followed a few days of uneasy quiet. The news from Africa was vague, but more cheerfully vague. It was generally understood that organized naval measures were being taken to overcome the submarine forces of the enemy, which had succeeded in making the African coasts so dangerous and had proceeded so far afield that until such measures had been concerted and carried out the landing of fresh troops had become impossible. It was even rumoured that attacks had been made on certain European harbours, but if this were so the Government concerned saw to it that no hint was allowed to appear in the Press. Energetic operations had been planned; the more energetic movements of the enemy seemed to have ceased, though the clearance of white troops from North Africa appeared to be proceeding slowly but systematically.

The financial panic had also been stayed to some extent by Government action. For the Prime Minister had announced that, as the simplest means of meeting the emergency, the Administration had decided to make loans to the federated control of any particular industry which was seriously affected. Conditions of application, examination, payment and repayment were to be settled by a Commission set up for the purpose; the immediate affair was to steady the markets, and dazed directors of innumerable companies found themselves offered millions in order to buy up shares in their own concerns. Unfederated companies rushed to federate; all newspapers, for example, found themselves part of one large business, controlled by a common Board which immediately borrowed or was offered a subsidy of some millions, with which it repurchased the shares which Nehemiah and Ezekiel Rosenberg were throwing before the world. It looked therefore as if these devoted believers would secure their money as well as their jewels; and the coming of Messias or the building of the Temple be prepared for by the English in a general increase of taxation. Sir Bernard, as he contemplated the world, foresaw a possibility that the whole business, military and financial, would gradually expire, having ruined a great number of small shareholders, increased the financial strength of the larger, cost a great deal in armaments, and probably massacred a host of Africans in circumstances of more or less equal fighting.

“I had some expectation,” he said to Caithness as they turned into the Square, after an early afternoon walk, “of becoming a travelling doctor in my old age — probably with a donkey cart; and going from village to village, curing indigestion and collecting sixpences. You know the kind of thing —‘Travers’s Pills make Stomachs Tractable’—‘Dainty Digestions Decently Doctored.’ You might have joined me, and we would have put stomachs and souls right together. ‘Stomachs on the right; souls on the left: Advice free: only real cures paid for.’ But I should have stipulated for no miracles.”

“Then you’d have wanted an unfair advantage,” Caithness said. “I should have to send quite a number of my patients to you; lots of them think it’s their conscience when actually it’s their stomachs.”

“Still on your theory the soul’s wrong anyhow,” Sir Bernard pointed out.

“Quite,” Caithness answered. “But they have to understand that, not merely moan over their pains. However, the question isn’t likely to arise. Things do seem to be a bit quieter now.”

The exertions of the Government and (presumably) of the police did not, however, succeed in tracing either Nigel Considine or his friends. Justified by several different kinds of warrants, an examination of the Hampstead house was carried out but with no results. Whatever staff or whatever servants had occupied it had disappeared as completely as its master. Inkamasi was examined and reexamined, but though his story was given in fuller detail, the details did not much help. It was clear that the High Executive had done no more than preserve him in case he should be wanted; the Zulus themselves, who were apparently taking an active part in the war, were (so far as news could be obtained) under the headship of another of their race, a cousin of Inkamasi’s, less directly but still closely connected with the great chieftain and hero, Chaka. The king was allowed to remain in seclusion at Sir Bernard’s house, where he spent his days reading, brooding, and talking sometimes to his host and to Caithness. Philip rather avoided him.

Philip indeed had his own troubles. Apart from the complete wreck of his purposes which the war had brought about, apart from the agitations which his new experiences had introduced into his inner mind, he suddenly found himself on the most extraordinarily difficult terms with Rosamond. She refused to come near Colindale Square, she occasionally even refused to see him when he went to Hampstead, and when she did see him she was in a nervous and irritable mood which was quite unlike the normal Rosamond. Philip’s own meditations on the relations between love and Rosamond were thwarted and upset by the discovery that Rosamond, to all intents and purposes, wasn’t there for love to have relations with. She had always kept love in its proper place, and had never displayed any particular interest in its more corporeal manifestations, suggesting by her manner that such things were a trifle silly. If he tried to explain something of the marvel which she seemed to him, she had listened placidly and with good humour, but without much gratification and with no kind of exaltation at all. His own exaltation, however, had not been exactly forbidden to thrive — until now. But now she would not have it; she shrank from and repelled it. She wouldn’t be touched; she wouldn’t be approached. Isabel told him that her sister was sleeping badly. But what Isabel didn’t tell him was the dubious and unhappy cause of that broken sleep.

Roger, coming in early one evening, found his wife alone. He kissed her and flung himself down, and a silence gathered them up. Presently Isabel stirred: “Well, darling?” she said, “what do you think about it all?”

Roger said nothing at first, then he uttered, “I’ve done what I can. I’ve thrown over a course on the probable sources of the minor comedies of the early nineteenth century, and where Mrs. Inchbald found her plots — Mrs. Inchbald — I ask you, Isabel! Where did Mrs. Hemans get hers? — and I’ve talked to them for all I’m worth on the Filial Godhead and mighty forms and encountering darkness and Macbeth. I can’t do more — that way. I don’t know enough: I’m a baby in it, after all.”

Isabel said quietly, “You want to know more?”

Roger answered, “I want — yes, I— the thing that’s me wants to know, not like wanting apple tart with or without custard, but like wanting breath. There’s air outside the windows, and I shall smash them to get it or I shall die. There — you asked me.”

She came and stood by him, and he took her hand. “You don’t feel it like that?” he said.

“No, not like that,” she answered. “But perhaps I can’t. I’ve been thinking, Roger darling, and I’ve wondered whether perhaps women don’t have to do it anyhow. I mean — perhaps it’s nothing very new, this power your Mr. Considine talks of — perhaps women have always known it, and that’s why they’ve never made great art. Perhaps they have turned everything into themselves. Perhaps they must.”

He looked up at her, brooding. “I know,” he said, “you live and we talk about it.”

“No,” Isabel said, sitting down by him in front of the fire. “No, dearest, not only that. We only live on what you give us — imaginatively, I mean; you have to find the greater powers. You have to be the hunters and fishers and fighters when all’s said and done. So perhaps you ought to go and hunt now. But we turn it more easily into ourselves than you do — for bad and good alike. And we generally do it very badly — but then you’ve given us so little to do it with.”

“I don’t believe it,” Roger said. “I don’t believe in all this sex differentiation. And yet-”

“And yet,” she said, “it doesn’t matter now. We needn’t waste our time on talking abstractions. What do you want to do, sweetheart?”

“I don’t know what I can do,” he said. “I talk about smashing windows, but that’s rather silly. I want to find this power and master it and find what there is to be discovered. I want to live where they live.”

“They?” she asked.

“Considine and Michael Angelo and Epstein and Beethoven,” he answered. “I can feel a bit of what they do, I want to feel more. I’ve been trying to — don’t laugh. All the way home I’ve been saying things to myself, and trying to see what’s the thing to do. There’s the feeling every element in them first — not just seeing the words, but finding out how one belongs to the words, how one’s own self answers to all the different words, like criss-crossing currents. And then there’s turning all that deeper into one’s own self, into one’s desire — and that’s so hard because one hasn’t a desire, except general comfort!”

“O Roger dear, that’s not true! You have,” Isabel said.

Roger hesitated-“Well, perhaps!” he allowed. “Anyhow I kept losing hold and just feeling all vague and dithery, so I tried to turn one thrill on to another line — d’you see? — and I do think it might work. But it’ll need a lot of doing, and I’m not sure-” he relapsed into silence, and then said abruptly, “Has Philip been along?”

His wife was about to answer when Rosamond came into the room, and the conversation returned hastily to ordinary things. She wasn’t looking at all well, Roger thought, and she was getting positively hysterical these days. Curious that she should be Isabel’s sister. But of course Isabel was unusual. He reflected gloomily, while the women chatted, that on Considine’s showing he probably wouldn’t have been married to Isabel — the energy of love would have gone the other way, would have been transmuted or something. Lots of people must have had to do it in their time; lots of people must have been disappointed in love and then — Yes, but most of them just blew along till the worst was over. To use the worst and the best for something that was, as far as ordinary knowledge went, different from both. The abolition of death — the conquest of death.

The unnameable Muriel appeared in the room. She said, “Two gentlemen to see you, sir. They didn’t give their names. But one of them sent this —” She passed over a slip of card bearing a word or two —”‘How goes it? N. C.’”

Roger jumped forward. “Here,” he exclaimed, “where are they? Bring them — all right. I will.” He was out of the room and into the tiny hall. There he saw Considine and Mottreux.

“Good God!” he said. “Come in. I thought you-”

Considine shook hands with a smile. It occurred to Roger that that swift smile was always very near showing with Considine. It danced on the surface of a deeper rapture, as if, to the world, that was all that could be made of something within the world.

“We came”, he said, “Mottreux and I, to fill an hour. Do we interrupt?”

“No,” Roger said. “Come in.” He turned to Isabel. “May I present my wife?” he said. “You’ve never met Mr. Considine, have you, Isabel? And Colonel Mottreux.” His eyes fell on Rosamond. “Miss Murchison — Mr. Considine, Colonel Mottreux.”

As he found them seats he cursed Rosamond. Who wanted her there? Well, she’d have to lump it. He stood back, and let his look rest on Considine. Then he said, “But I thought Sir Bernard-”

“Certainly Sir Bernard,” Considine answered. “But I don’t think Sir Bernard or Mr. Suydler either are likely to interfere with me. It isn’t from them that my dangers now will ever come — except by literal accident. So, since I was about, and since to-night I shall be busy, and shall leave London — I came to see you.”

“Are you going to Africa?” Roger said before he could stop himself.

“I have come to ask you whether — if I go — you also will come,” Considine said.

Roger was picking up a box of cigarettes from the table; he put it down again and his face went pale. “I?” he said.

“I know that you believe,” Considine said, “and I offer you the possibility.”

Roger, with a heroic effort, avoided looking at Isabel. He said in a calm silly voice, “It’s awfully kind of you, of course, but I don’t see how I can. Not this side of Christmas.”

Isabel said, “I think you might. It’ll be death if you don’t.”

He looked up at her, and she added, “It’ll be death to you, darling, and then there’ll be nothing left for me. If you go, there may. And I can do — what we were talking about.”

“But I can’t decide all on the moment,” Roger protested to Considine, though he still looked at Isabel.

“You have decided,” Considine said. “But of course you may not do it.”

“And have I decided,” Roger said sardonically, “to live for a hundred years and try all sorts of experiments with my unhappy body?”

“‘I will encounter darkness as a bride,’” Considine murmured. “Yes.”

It was true, and Roger knew it. Chance might thwart him, as (so he understood) it might thwart Considine himself, but the decision was in his blood and bones. He would have to follow this man — as once, he had read, other men had thrown aside their work and their friends to follow another voice. When explosions happened you were just blown. Isabel would be all right as far as money went — and till he had entered into this mystery he could never now serve Isabel rightly. Those other men had followed a voice that went crying how it was not come to send peace but a sword — the peace of the sword perhaps, the reconciliation in a greater state of being which —

He pulled a chair forward. “Tell me about it,” he said. He was vaguely aware, as he did so, that Rosamond had slipped from the room, and was grateful. The four of them were left. Roger picked up the cigarettes again and offered them to Isabel who took one, and to Considine and Mottreux who refused. He himself hesitated.

“I don’t”, he said, “see any reason why I shouldn’t smoke, and yet when I’m really concerned I don’t. Except by habit.”

“It absorbs energy,” Considine said. “When it’s a dominant habit it absorbs less energy than the refusal demands, so naturally it has its way. But when it’s not quite inevitable you’re conscious of the energy wasted — of a divided concentration — and you hesitate.”

“Is that why you don’t smoke?” Roger asked.

“I don’t smoke just as I don’t eat — since you ask me,” Considine said, the smile breaking out again, “because it doesn’t amuse me. Any more than golfing or dancing or reading the newspaper. Certain things drop away as one becomes maturer.”

“And eating’s one of them?” Roger asked, putting down the cigarettes.

“It’s necessary to an extent still,” Considine answered. “I suppose a certain minimum of food may be necessary, until — afterwards. Then perhaps not. But it’s nothing like as necessary as one thinks. There are so many better things to feed on. Shall I quote your Messias again? ‘I have meat to eat that ye know not of.’”

Isabel said, more suddenly than was her habit, “It was to do the will of Him that sent him.”

“What else?” Considine answered. “What else could it be?”

“But you don’t claim to be doing that will?” Isabel said. “You’re not in obedience, are you?”

“I am in obedience to all laws I have not yet mastered,” he answered. “I am in danger of death — until I have mastered it — and therefore in obedience to it, and a little to food and sleep.”

“But you said that danger-” Roger began.

“I said that danger will not come from my enemies,” Considine answered; “isn’t there any other? There are laws that are very deep, and one of them may be that every gospel has a denial within it and every Church a treachery. You — whom I invite to join me — you yourself may be a danger. It isn’t for me to fear you because of that chance.”

Roger leant forward. “That’s it,” he cried out, “there’s nothing that may not betray.”

Isabel said softly, “Can’t Mr. Considine transform treachery too?”

“I can guard against it at least,” Considine answered; “I can read men’s minds, under conditions, but the conditions may fail, and then — could Christ do more?”

Isabel answered still softly, “Mightn’t the missionaries you killed have joined with something which was greater than you because it had known defeat? Have you known defeat?”

“No,” Considine said and stood up. “I’ve mastered myself from the beginning and all things that I’ve needed are mine. Why should man know defeat? You teach him to look and expect and wait for it; you teach him to obey and submit; you heal his hurts and soothe his diseases. But I will show him that in his hurts as in his happiness he is greatly and intensely lord; he lives by them. He shall delight in feeling, and his feeling shall be blood within his blood and body in his body; it shall burn through him till that old business of yes-and-no has fallen away from him, and then his diseases will have vanished for they are nothing but the shadow of his wanting this and the other, and when he is those things that he desires, where are the shadows of them? Do I starve without food who do not need food? Do I pine for love who do not need love? Do I doubt victory who am victory? There is but one chance of defeat, and that is that death may strike me before I have dared it in its own place. But even that cannot face me; by ambush or treachery it might take me, but I will neither expect it nor allow for it. It is a habit man yields to, no more; and I will be lord of that customary thing as I am of all, and draw power and delight from it as I do from all. Who follows?”

Isabel, as if from a depth of meditation, answered: “But those that die may be lordlier than you: they are obedient to defeat. Can you live truly till you have been quite defeated? You talk of living by your hurts, but perhaps you avoid the utter hurt that’s destruction.”

He smiled down at her. “Why, have it as you will,” he said. “But it isn’t such submission and destruction that man desires.”

There was a little silence; then he said again, speaking to Roger: “What. then will you do?”

Roger looked down at the floor, and only when a much longer silence had gone by did he say, “Yes; I’ll come. You’re right — I’d decided already, and I won’t go back.”

“Then”, Considine said, “to-night you will be at Bernard Travers’s house, for I shall come there. And don’t fear for your wife, whatever happens. I will not destroy London tonight.”

Roger looked up again sharply. “But-” he began.

There were voices in the hall; Muriel’s, Rosamond’s, others’. Roger got up, looking over his shoulder, and turned. Isabel and Mottreux also rose: only Considine stood motionless. The door opened and Rosamond came in. Behind her were uniforms — a police inspector followed, and another, and two or three men. The inspector said: “Mr. Ingram?”

“What’s this about?” Roger asked staring.

“We’ve had information that there’s a man here whom we want,” the inspector said, looking round, and letting his eyes rest on Considine. “Mr. Nigel Considine?” he asked.

Considine did not speak or move.

“I’ve a warrant here for your arrest,” the inspector said, “on a charge of high treason and conspiracy to murder.” He showed a paper and stepped across the room. Mottreux said something, and the inspector glanced at him. But he halted a pace or two away from Considine, it might be to give his men time to come up, it might be from hesitation in the sudden oppression that began to fill the room, as if invisible waters flowed through it. The air weighed on them, stifling them with its rich presence; the inspector put a finger to his collar as he poised watchfully. Rosamond sank heavily on to a chair; Roger drew deep breaths, sighing as he did sometimes in his passion after repeating mighty verses aloud. The air spoke; in the voice of Nigel Considine the element of life, echoing from all around, said: “Whom?”

The inspector struggled forward; it needed labour, so heavily was he oppressed by the depths into which the air had opened. He took a step and staggered as he did so. The eyes fixed on him saw him rock and steady himself; he said, holding himself upright, “Nigel Considine, I-”

“I am Nigel Considine,” his great opponent answered, and also moved forward, and the quiver that went through them all answered the laughter in the voice. The inspector reeled again, half-falling sideways, and as he recovered footing a sudden hand went out towards him-whether it touched him or not they could not tell-and he stumbled backward once more. The wind swept into their faces, and on it a ringing laughter came, and in its midst Considine went on towards the door, with Mottreux by him, sending towards Roger one imperious glance from eyes bright with joy. The uniforms thronged and shifted and were in confusion, and wind swirled in the room as if strength were released through it, and Roger, half-dazed, ran forward and saw the two visitors already in the hall. The inspector came heavily and blindly back; he called out; his men moved uncertainly after Considine who paused, turned, and paused again.

“I am Nigel Considine,” he cried out. “Who takes me?”

He flung out his arms as if in derisive submission, and took a step or two towards them. They recoiled; there was renewed confusion, men pressing back and pressing forward, men exclaiming and commanding. Someone slipped and crashed against the doorpost, someone else, thrust backward, tripped over a foot; there was falling and stumbling, and through it Roger saw the wide-armed figure offering itself in laughing scorn. Then, with a motion as if he gathered up the air and cast it against them, so that they blinked and thrust and shielded their eyes, he turned from that struggling mass of fallen and pushing bodies, and went to the front-door. A panting Muriel leaned against it; he laughed at her and signed, and hastily she drew away, opening it, and he and Mottreux went through.

Roger gazed after him “I have lived,” he sighed. “I have seen the gods. Phoebus, Phoebus, Python-destroyer, hear and save.”

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