War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eighteen

Castra Parvulorum

The Duke of the North Ridings had spent the night at the Rectory, and both he and the Archdeacon had slept soundly, though it was rather late before they got to bed. They had caught the last train to the nearest junction, which was five miles off; and both in the train and on the walk the Archdeacon had been mildly bothered by the Graal. He had caught up a sheet of paper from the shop when they left it, with some notion of not being a cause of blasphemy to the ungodly by carrying an unveiled chalice, but he had never been able to arrange it successfully, and its ends kept waving about and disclosing the Cup. A cheerful and slightly drunk excursionist in the train had found this a theme for continual merriment at the general expense of the clergy and the Church, and something he had said had caused the Archdeacon to wonder whether perhaps he were being a stumbling-block to one of those little ones who had not yet attained detachment. However, he recovered his usual equilibrium during the walk, and negatived successfully the Duke’s feeling that they ought to keep a common vigil.

“I’m extremely sleepy,” he said apologetically, but firmly. “After all, it’s been rather a tiring day, and — as someone said — I will meet my God with an unclouded mind.”

“Doctor Johnson,” the Duke unthinkingly supplied the unnecessary information, and then smiled. “I expect you’re right,” he said. “He gave us sleep also.”

“For His mercy endureth for ever,” the Archdeacon quite sincerely answered; and they parted for the night.

Barbara awoke early that morning in her cottage; she had taken a dislike to sleeping at Cully, and, without disturbing the sleeping Lionel, wandered out of doors. The first person she saw was Adrian playing on the grass with the young man she had tried to recognize on an earlier day, and she ran over to them with exclamations. Adrian, fresh and energetic, hurled himself at her with tumultuous shrieks of greeting and information, and she looked laughingly to the stranger for an explanation.

“Gregory Persimmons has been arrested,” he said, “on his own confession, for murder; and, as I was there, I brought your son back at once. He’s slept very well, and we’ve been playing out here since he woke.”

Barbara, holding Adrian with one hand, pushed her hair back with the other, the long scar showing as she moved her wrist. “That’s very nice of you,” she said. “But Mr. Persimmons! What a dreadful thing!”

“Do you really think so, Mrs. Rackstraw?” the other asked, smiling.

Barbara blushed, and then looked grave. “No,” she said. “Well, at least, somehow I don’t feel surprised. Since I met you, I haven’t felt quite the same about Mr. Persimmons.”

“You may feel the same now,” Prester John answered, and was interrupted by Adrian.

“Hush, darling!” his mother said. “Go to church? Yes, if you like. I’m afraid”, she added, blushing rather more deeply as she looked at the stranger again, “that we don’t go as regularly as we should.”

“It is a means,” he answered, “one of the means. But perhaps the best for most, and for some almost the only one. I do not say that it matters greatly, but the means cannot both be and not be. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.”

“Yes,” Barbara said doubtfully. “Lionel was rather badgered into it as a boy, and he almost dislikes it now, and so . . . ”

“One’s foes are always in one’s own household,” the other answered, with a rather mournful smile. But, as Barbara glanced at him, suspecting a remoter meaning, he went on. “But this morning Adrian is to serve me in the church over there.”

“Serve!” Barbara said, aghast. “But he can’t do it. He’s only four, and he knows nothing about it, and —”

“He can do all I need, Mrs. Rackstraw,” her friend said, and was drowned again by Adrian’s “Mum-mie! and we’ve been playing cricket, and will you come and play after breakfast?”

“I thought we were to go to church, darling,” Barbara answered.

“Oh, after church too,” Adrian said. “And will you come?” he asked the stranger.

The answer was delayed by his seeing Lionel wander out of the cottage in pyjamas, to whom he rushed away still full of the importance and immediacy of life. The other two came after him to the door.

Lionel received with a certain shock the news of Gregory’s surrender, but it was a shock produced merely by its suddenness. His eyes dropped to Adrian with a certain questioning dread, as if he were wondering what similar fate in after-life already predestined that innocent and ignorant head. And as Barbara, murmuring of breakfast, or at least of some sort of coffee and biscuits before they went over to the church, disappeared into the cottage with her son, the stranger said to Lionel, “Yet he may escape.”

Lionel looked up. “Oh, yes,” he said vaguely, though he felt the fantasy, as he stood alone with the other, take sharp form within his mind. “Oh, yes — that, but something awaits him surely of ruin and of despair.”

“It may be,” the stranger said, “but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves, and I think you fear them overmuch.”

“I fear all things,” Lionel answered, “and I do not understand how it is that men do not fear them more. In the town it is bad enough, but there one is deafened and blinded by people and things. But here everything is so still and meditative, and I am afraid of what those meditations are.”

“Is there, then, nothing pleasant in life?” Prester John said.

Lionel answered, almost savagely, “Can’t you see that when life is most pleasant one suspects it most? Unless one can drug oneself with the moment and forget.”

“I do not think you drug yourself much,” the stranger said, smiling. “Are you sure you do not love your fears?”

“No,” Lionel said; “I am not sure of anything. I do think I love to feel them though I loathe them, but I do not know why.”

“Because so chiefly you feel yourself alive,” the other said, “separated from them and hostile and tormented, but alive in heart and brain. You desire death! Your very desire witnesses how passionately you feel these things and how strongly you live.”

Lionel smiled a little. “Heautontimoroumenos?” he asked doubtfully.

“No, not that,” the stranger answered. “But you are afraid of losing yourself in the fantasies of daily life, and you think that these pains will save you. But I bring the desire of all men, and what will you ask of me?”

“Annihilation,” Lionel answered. “I have not asked for life, and I should be content now to know that soon I should not be. Do you think I desire the heaven they talk of?”

“Death you shall have at least,” the other said. “But God only gives, and He has only Himself to give, and He, even He, can give it only in those conditions which are Himself. Wait but a few years, and He shall give you the death you desire. But do not grudge too much if you find that death and heaven are one.” He pointed towards Cully. “This man desired greatly the God of all sacrifice and sacrifice itself, and he finds Him now. But you shall find another way, for the door that opens on annihilation opens only on the annihilation which is God.”

He walked away across the glade, and when Lionel saw him again it was in the church built above the spot where, tradition said, Caesar had restored the children to their mothers.

The Duke of the North Ridings, rather more than obedient to the strict etiquette of his Church, was leaning against the door-post; the Archdeacon was in his stall. As the other members of that small and curiously drawn congregation came in, Adrian broke from his mother’s hand and ran up the aisle on small, hasty feet to where, by the altar, Prester John turned to receive him. To Barbara and the Duke, accustomed to liturgical vestments, the priest-king seemed to be clothed in the chasuble of tradition; to Lionel he seemed to stand, pure and naked, in the high sunlight of the morning; what he seemed to the child none then or ever knew. He sank on one knee to meet him, opened his arms to Adrian’s rush, and then, after a moment during which they seemed to confer, drew him gently to the credence table at the side. There Adrian, grave and content, plumped himself down on a hassock for a seat, and the priest-king returned to the front of the altar.

The sacristan was away down in the village, but suddenly above them they heard the noise of a bell, only higher and more remote and more clear than any bell they had heard before, as if the very idea of sound made itself felt in those notes, and withdrew and ceased. The priest-king spread out his hands and brought them together, and there was a movement throughout the church, as if a hundred watchers had stirred and drawn breath at the beginning of the Mysteries. The Duke leaned a little forward in perplexity; he saw the forms with which he was acquainted, but here and there, only always just to one side or in some corner, he seemed to see other forms. They had vanished in a moment, yet they had been there. He had caught certain of the faces which he knew in the great gallery of his ancestors in the Castle, and other faces more antique and foreign than these, a turbaned head, a helmed and armoured shape, outlandish robes, and the glint of many crowns. They had vanished, and he saw Adrian plunge to his feet and go to the celebrant’s side. And clear and awful to his ears their voices floated.

The voices were clear, but what they said was hidden. To him by the door, as to Barbara kneeling by a chair, there issued sometimes a familiar phrase. “Introibo,” he thought he heard, and could have believed that the child’s voice answered, “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutern meam.” But he looked in vain for the motions of the Confession; while he looked the priest-king was up the steps by the altar, though he had not seen him go, and about the church rang the Christe eleison and died.

Barbara, less adept at ritual, caught only a sentence of the Collect? “to Whom all hearts be open, all desires known”— and then was happily distracted by the sedate movements of her child, till of a sudden the words of the Lesson recaptured her: “And God said: Let us make man, in Our image, after Our likeness? in the image of God created He him, male and female created He them.” The very sound inclined her ever so slightly towards her husband; her hand went out and found his, and so linked they watched till the end. And the priest-king’s voice closed on the Gospel: “Behold, I make all things new.”

But the Archdeacon, hearing all these words, trembled a little as he knelt. The thoughts with which he approached the Mysteries faded; the Mysteries themselves faded. He distinguished no longer word from act; he was in the presence, he was part of the Act which far away issued in those faint words, “Let us make man”— creation rose and flowed out and wheeled to its august return —“in Our image, after Our likeness”— the great pronouns were the sound of that return. Faster and faster all things moved through that narrow channel he had before seen and now himself seemed to be entering and beyond it they issued again into similar but different existence — themselves still, yet infused and made one in an undreamed perfection. The sunlight — the very sun itself — was moving on through the upright form before the altar, and darkness and light together were pouring through it, and with them all things that were. He saw, standing at the very edge of that channel, the small figure of Adrian, and then he himself had passed the boy and was entering upon the final stage of the Way. Everything was veiled; the voice of the priest-king was the sound of creation’s movement; he awaited the exodus that was to be.

Everything was veiled, but not so entirely that he did not hear from somewhere behind him, in space or in experience, the Duke’s voice saying, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” or a call from in front, “Lift up your hearts,” or again, from behind, Barbara’s voice crying, “We lift them up unto the Lord,” or, in a higher and more tremendous summons, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord,” and, amid the tumult of song that broke out, Lionel’s own voice joining in the answer, “It is meet and right so to do.”

“It is very meet, right . . . ” the priest-king said; the three heard it, and heard no more intelligible words. They saw Adrian moving up and about; they saw his grave and happy face as he turned to some motion of his Lord’s; they saw him go back and sit down again on his hassock, cuddling his knees, glance down at his mother, and turn to watch the event. For now the unknown sounds were pealing steadily on; all separate beings, save where the hands of the lovers lingered in a final clasp, were concentrated on that high motionless Figure — motionless, for in Him all motions awaited His movement to be loosed, and still He did not move. All sound ceased; all things entered into an intense suspension of being; nothing was anywhere at all but He.

He stood; He moved His hands. As if in benediction He moved them, and at once the golden halo that had hung all this while over the Graal dissolved and dilated into spreading colour; and at once life leapt in all those who watched, and filled and flooded and exalted them. “Let us make man,” He sang, “in Our image, after Our likeness,” and all the church of visible and invisible presences answered with a roar: “In the image of God created He him: male and female created He them.” All things began again to be. At a great distance Lionel and Barbara and the Duke saw beyond Him, as He lifted up the Graal, the moving universe of stars, and then one flying planet, and then fields and rooms and a thousand remembered places, and all in light and darkness and peace.

He seemed to hold the Graal no more; the divine colour that had moved in that vision of creation swathed Him as a close-bound robe. Beyond Him the church was again visible, and silence succeeded to the flying music that had accompanied vision. Like the centre of that silence, they heard His voice calling as if He called a name. He had not turned; still He faced the altar, and thrice He called and was still. The Archdeacon stood up suddenly in his stall; then he came sedately from it, and turned in the middle of the chancel to face the three who watched. He smiled at them, and made a motion of farewell with his hand; then he turned and went up to the sanctuary. At the same moment Adrian, as if in obedience to some command, scrambled to his feet and came down towards his mother. At the gate of the sanctuary the two met; the child paused and raised his face; gravely they exchanged the kiss of peace. Before Adrian had reached Barbara the other began to mount the steps of the altar, and as he set his foot on the first sank gently to the ground.

On the instant, as they gazed, the church, but for them and the prostrate form, was empty. The sunlight shone upon an altar as bare as the pavement before it; without violence, without parting, the Graal and its Lord were gone.

They knelt and prayed, and only stirred at last when, with the natural boredom of childhood, Adrian said in a minute to his mother: “Shall we go home now?” The words dissolved as by a predestined act the forces that held them. Barbara stood up, looked once at Lionel, smiled at Adrian, and went with him out of the church. The Duke came up the aisle.

“Will you tell his people or shall I?” he asked Lionel, and Lionel answered with an equal normality, “As you like. I will stay here, if you will go.”

“Very well,” the Duke said, and paused, looking at the body. Then he said, smiling at Lionel, “I suppose they will say he had a weak heart.”

“Yes,” Lionel answered, “I expect they will.” He felt suddenly the joy of the fantasy rise in his mind; he walked to the door and watched the Duke crossing the churchyard, and waited till beyond the hedge he saw Mr. Batesby hurrying to the church. Then he went out to meet him.

“Dear, dear,” Mr. Batesby said, “how truly distressing! ‘In the midst of life’ . . . The Archdeacon too . . . Cut down like a palm-tree and thrust into the oven . . . No doubt the knock on the head affected it rather much.”

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