War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Six

The Sabbath

“I met Mr. Persimmons in the village today,” Mr. Batesby said to the Archdeacon. “He asked after you very pleasantly, although he’s sent every day to inquire. It was he that saw you lying in the road, you know, and brought you here in his car. It must be a great thing for you to have a sympathetic neighbour at the big house; there’s so often friction in these small parishes.”

“Yes,” the Archdeacon said.

“We had quite a long chat,” the other went on. “He isn’t exactly a Christian, unfortunately, but he has a great admiration for the Church. He thinks it’s doing a wonderful work — especially in education. He takes a great interest in education; he calls it the star of the future. He thinks morals are more important than dogma, and of course I agree with him.”

“Did you say ‘of course I agree’ or ‘of course I agreed’?” the Archdeacon asked. “Or both?”

“I mean I thought the same thing,” Mr. Batesby explained. He had noticed a certain denseness in the Archdeacon on other occasions. “Conduct is much the biggest thing in life, I feel. ‘He can’t be wrong whose life is for the best; we needs must love the higher when we see Him.’ And he gave me five pounds towards the Sunday School Fund.”

“There isn’t,” the Archdeacon said, slightly roused, “a Sunday School Fund at Fardles.”

“Oh, well!” Mr. Batesby considered. “I daresay he’d be willing for it to go to almost anything active. He was very keen, and I agree — thought just the same, on getting things done. He thinks that the Church ought to be a means of progress. He quoted something about not going to sleep till we found a pleasant Jerusalem in the green land of England. I was greatly struck. An idealist, that’s what I should call him. England needs idealists today.”

“I think we had better return the money,” the Archdeacon said, “If he isn’t a Christian —”

“Oh, but he is,” Mr. Batesby protested. “In effect, that is. He thinks Christ was the second greatest man the earth has produced.”

“Who was the first?” the Archdeacon asked.

Mr. Batesby paused again for a moment. “Do you know, I forgot to ask?” he said. “But it shows a sympathetic spirit, doesn’t it? After all, the second greatest! That goes a long way. Little children, love one another — if five pounds helps us to teach them that in the schools. I’m sure mine want a complete new set of Bible pictures.”

There was a pause. The two priests were sitting after dinner in the garden of the Rectory. The Archdeacon, with inner thoughts for meditation, was devoting a superficial mind to Mr. Batesby, who on his side was devoting his energies to providing his host with cheerful conversation. The Archdeacon knew this, and knew too that his guest and substitute would rather have been talking about his own views on the ornaments rubric than about the parishioners. He wished he would. He was feeling rather tired, and it was an effort to pay attention to anything which he did not know by heart. Mr. Batesby’s ecclesiastical views he did — and thought them incredibly silly — but he thought his own were probably that too. One had views for convenience’ sake, but how anyone could think they mattered. Except, of course, that even silly views . . .

A car went by on the road and a hand was waved from it. To Gregory Persimmons the sight of the two priests was infinitely pleasurable. He had met them both and summed them up. He could, he felt, knock the Archdeacon on the head whenever he chose, and the other hadn’t got a head to be knocked. It was all very pleasant and satisfactory. There had been a moment, a few days ago, in that little shop when he couldn’t get out, and there seemed suddenly no reason why he should get out, as if he had been utterly and finally betrayed into being there for ever — he had felt almost in a panic. He had known that feeling once or twice before, at odd times; but there was no need to recall it now. To-night, to-night, something else was to happen. To-night he would know what it all was of which he had read in his books, and heard — heard from people who had funnily come into his life and then disappeared. Long ago, as a boy, he remembered reading about the Sabbath, but he had been told that it wasn’t true. His father had been a Victorian Rationalist. The Archdeacon, he thought, was exceedingly Victorian too. His heart beating in an exalted anticipation, he drove on to Cully.

Mr. Batesby was asleep that night, and the Archdeacon was, in a Victorian way, engaged in his prayers, when Gregory Persimmons stood up alone in his room. It was a little after midnight, and, as he glanced out of the window, he saw a clear sky with a few stars and the full moon contemplating him. Slowly, very slowly, he undressed, looking forward to he knew not what, and then — being entirely naked — he took from a table the small greasy box of ointment and opened it. It was a pinkish ointment, very much the colour of the skin, and at first he thought it had no smell. But in a few minutes, as it lay exposed to the air, there arose from it a faint odour which grew stronger, and presently filled the whole room, not overpoweringly, but with a convenient and irresistible assurance. He paused for a moment, inhaling it, and finding in it the promise of some complete decay. It brought to him an assurance of his own temporal achievement of his power to enter into those lives which he touched and twist them out of their security into a sliding destruction. Five pounds here, a clever jeer there — it was all easy. Everyone had some security, and he had only to be patient to find and destroy it. His father, when he had grown old and had had a good deal of trouble, had been inclined to wonder whether there was anything in religion. And they had talked of it; he remembered those talks. He had — it had been his first real experiment — he had suggested very carefully and delicately, to that senile and uneasy mind, that there probably was a God, but a God of terrible jealousy; God had driven Judas, who betrayed Him, to hang himself; and driven the Jews who denied Him to exile in all lands. And Peter, his father had said, Peter was forgiven. He had stood thinking of that, and then had hesitated that, yes, no doubt Peter was forgiven, unless God had taken a terrible revenge and used Peter to set up all that mystery of evil which was Antichrist and Torquemada and Smithfield and the Roman See. Before the carefully sketched picture of an infinite, absorbing, and mocking vengeance, his father had shivered and grown silent. And had thereafter died, trying not to believe in God lest he should know himself damned.

Gregory smiled, and touched the ointment with his fingers. It seemed almost to suck itself upward round them as he did so. He disengaged his fingers and began the anointing. From the feet upwards in prolonged and rhythmic movements his hands moved backward and forward over his skin, he bowed and rose again, and again. The inclinations gradually ceased as the anointing hands grew higher — around the knees, the hips, the breast. Against his body the pink smears showed brightly for a moment, and then were mingled with and lost in the natural colour of the flesh. All the while his voice kept up a slow crooning, to the sound of which he moved, pronouncing as in an incantation of rounded and liquid syllables what seemed hierarchic titles. He touched his temples and his forehead with both hands, and so for a moment stayed.

His voice grew deeper and charged with more intensity, though the sound was not noticeably quicker, as he began the second anointing. But now it was only the chosen parts that he touched — the soles of the feet, the palms of the hands, the inner side of the fingers, the ears and eyelids, the environs of nose and mouth, the secret organs. Over all these again and again he moved his hands, and again ceased and paused, and the intensity died from his voice.

For the third anointing was purely ritual. He marked various figures upon his body — a cross upon either sole, a cross inverted from brow to foot, and over all his form the pentagon reversed of magic. While he did so his voice rose in a solemn chant which entered with a strange power through those anointed ears, and flowed through his body as did the new faint light that seemed to shine through his closed eyelids. Light and sound were married in premonitions of approaching experience; his voice quivered upon the air and stopped. Then with an effort he moved uncertainly towards his bed, and stretched himself on it, his face towards the closed window and the enlarging moon. Silent and grotesque he lay, and the secret processes of the night began.

If it had been possible for any stranger to enter that locked room in the middle of his journeying they would have found his body lying there still. By no broomstick flight over the lanes of England did Gregory Persimmons attend the Witches’ Sabbath, nor did he dance with other sorcerers upon some blasted heath before a goat-headed manifestation of the Accursed. But scattered far over the face of the earth, though not so far in the swiftness of interior passage, those abandoned spirits answered one another that night; and That beyond them (which some have held to be but the precipitation and tendency of their own natures, and others for the equal and perpetual coinheritor of power and immortality with Good)— That beyond them felt them and shook and replied, sustained and nourished and controlled.

After Gregory had laid himself upon the bed he made the usual attempt at excluding from the attention all his surroundings. But to-night the powerful ointment worked so swiftly upon him, stealing through all his flesh with a delicious venom and writhing itself into his blood and heart, that he had scarcely come to rest before the world was shut out. He was being made one with something beyond his consciousness; he accepted the union in a deep sigh of pleasure.

When it had approached a climax it ceased suddenly. There passed through him a sense of lightness and airy motion; his body seemed to float upwards, so unconscious had it become of the bed on which it rested. He knew now that he must begin to exercise his own intention, and in a depth beyond thought he did so. He commanded and directed himself towards the central power which awaited him. Images floated past him; for his mind, rising as it were out of the faintness which had overcome it, now began to change his experiences into such sounds and shapes as it knew; so that he at once experienced and expressed experience to himself intellectually, and could not generally separate the two. At this beginning, for example, as he lay given up to that sensation of swift and easy motion towards some still hidden moment of exquisite and destructive delight, it seemed to him that at a great distance he heard faint and lovely voices, speaking to him or to each other, and that out of him in turn went a single note of answering glee.

And now he was descending; lower and lower, into a darker and more heavy atmosphere. His intention checked his flight, and it declined almost into stillness; night was about him, and more than night, a heaviness which was like that felt in a crowd, a pressure and intent expectation of relief. As to the mind of a man in prayer might come sudden reminders of great sanctities in other places and other periods, so now to him came the consciousness, not in detail, but as achievements, of far-off masteries of things, multitudinous dedications consummating themselves in That which was already on its way. But that his body was held in a trance by the effect of the ointment, the smell of which had long since become part of his apprehension, he would have turned his head one way or the other to see or speak to those unseen companions.

Suddenly, as in an excited crowd a man may one minute be speaking and shouting to those near him, and the next, part of the general movement directed and controlled by that to which he contributes, there rose within him the sense of a vast and rapid flow, of which he was part, rushing and palpitating with desire. He desired — the heat about his heart grew stronger — to give himself out, to be one with something that should submit to him and from which he should yet draw nourishment; but something beyond imagination, stupendous. He was hungry — but not for food; he was thirsty — but not for drink; he was filled with passion — but not for flesh. He expanded in the rush of an ancient desire; he longed to be married to the whole universe for a bride. His father appeared before him, senile and shivering; his wife, bewildered and broken; his sop, harassed and distressed. These were his marriages, these his bridals. The bridal dance was beginning; they and he and innumerable others were moving to the wild rhythm of that aboriginal longing. Beneath all the little cares and whims of mankind the tides of that ocean swung, and those who had harnessed them and those who had been destroyed by them were mingled in one victorious catastrophe. His spirit was dancing with his peers, and yet still something in his being held back and was not melted.

There was something — from his depths he cried to his mortal mind to recall it and pass on the message — some final thing that was needed still; some offering by which he might pierce beyond this black drunkenness and achieve a higher reward. What was the sacrifice, what the oblation that was greater than the wandering and unhappy souls whose ruin he had achieved? Heat as from an immense pyre beat upon him, beat upon him with a demand for something more; he absorbed it, and yet, his ignorance striking him with fear, shrunk from its ardent passions. It was not heat only, it was sound also, a rising tumult, acclamation of shrieking voices, thunder of terrible approach. It came, it came, ecstasy of perfect mastery, marriage in hell, he who was Satan wedded to that beside which was Satan. And yet one little thing was needed and he had it not — he was an outcast for want of that one thing. He forced his interior mind to stillness for a moment only, and in that moment recollection came.

From the shadowy and forgotten world the memory of the child Adrian floated into him, and he knew that this was what was needed. All gods had their missionaries, and this god also who was himself and not himself demanded neophytes. Deeply into himself he drew that memory; he gathered up its freshness and offered it to the secret and infernal powers. Adrian was the desirable sacrifice, an unknowing initiate, a fated candidate. To this purpose the man lying still and silent on the bed, or caught up before some vast interior throne where the masters and husbands and possessors of the universe danced and saw immortal life decay before their subtle power, dedicated himself. The wraith of the child drifted into the midst of the dance, and at the moment when Adrian far away in London stirred in his sleep with a moan a like moan broke out in another chamber. For the last experience was upon the accepted devotee; there passed through him a wave of intense cold, and in every chosen spot where the ointment had been twice applied the cold concentrated and increased. Nailed, as it were, through feet and hands and head and genitals, he passed utterly into a pang that was an ecstasy beyond his dreams. He was divorced now from the universe; he was one with a rejection of all courteous and lovely things; by the oblation of the child he was made one with that which is beyond childhood and age and time — the reflection and negation of the eternity of God. He existed supernaturally, and in Hell . . .

When the dissolution of this union and the return began, he knew it as an overwhelming storm. Heat and cold, the interior and exterior world, images and wraiths, sounds and odours, warred together within him. Chaos broke upon him; he felt himself whirled away into an infinite desolation of anarchy. He strove to concentrate, now on that which was within, now on some detail of the room which was already spectrally apparent to him; but fast as he did so it was gone. Panic seized him; he would have screamed, but to scream would be to be lost. And then again the image of Adrian floated before him, and he knew that much was yet to be done. With that image in his heart, he rose slowly and through many mists to the surface of consciousness, and as it faded gradually to a name and a thought he knew that the Sabbath was over and the return accomplished.

“He’s very restless,” Barbara said to Lionel. “I wonder if the scone upset him. There, darling, there!”

“He’s probably dreaming of going away,” Lionel answered softly. “I hope he won’t take a dislike to the place or Persimmons or anything.”

“Hush, sweetheart,” Barbara murmured. “All’s well. All’s well.”


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