Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams

Chapter Twelve

Beyond Gomorrah

“Then this”, Stanhope said, “is a last visit?”

“Yes,” Pauline said. “I’m going up to London tomorrow morning.”

“You’ll like the work,” Stanhope went on. “Odd-to know that when you don’t know what it is. You do know that?”

“Under the Mercy,” she said. “I’m to see my uncle’s man tomorrow at twelve, and if he approves me I shall start work at once. So then, my uncle says, I can stay with them for a few days till I’ve found rooms or a room.”

“You’ll send me the address?” he asked.

She answered: “Of course. You’ll stop here still?”

He nodded, and for the minute there was silence. Then she added: “Most people seem to be trying to move.”

“Most,” he said, “but some won’t and some can’t and some needn’t. You must, of course. But I think I might as well stop. There are flowers, and fruit, and books, and if anyone wants me, conversation, and so on-till the plague stops.”

She asked, looking at him: “Do you know how long it will last?”

He shrugged a little: “If it’s what my grandmother would have called it,” he said, “one of the vials of the Apocalypse — why, perhaps a thousand years, those of the millennium before the judgment. On the other hand, since that kind of thousand years is asserted to be a day, perhaps till tomorrow morning. We’re like the Elizabethan drama, living in at least two time schemes.”

She said: “It is that?”

“As a thief in the night’,” he answered. “Could you have a better description? Something is stealing from us our dreams and deceptions and everything but actuality.”

“Will they die?” she asked.

“I don’t think anyone will die,” he said, “unless — and God redeem us all! — into the second death. But I think the plague will spread. The dead were very thick here; perhaps that was why it began here.”

“And Adela?” she asked, and Myrtle?”

“Why, that is for them,” he answered.

But she opened on him a smile of serenity, saying: “And for you.”

“I will talk Nature to Miss Fox,” he said, “and Art to Miss Hunt. If they wish. But I think Prescott may be better for Miss Hunt; he’s an almost brutal realist, and I shall remain a little Augustan, even in heaven.”

“And I?” she asked, “I?”

“Incipit vita nova,” he answered. “You-by the way, what train are you catching tomorrow? I’ll come and see you off.”

“Half-past ten,” she said, and he nodded and went on: “You’ll find your job and do it and keep it-in the City of our God, even in the City of the Great King, and . . . and how do I, any more than you, know what the details of Salem will be like?”

She stood up, luxuriously stretching. “No,” she said, “perhaps not. I suppose poets are superfluous in Salem?”

“I have wondered myself,” he admitted. “But you needn’t realize it so quickly. If the redeemed sing, presumably someone must write the songs. Well-I’ll see you at the station tomorrow?”

“Yes, please,” she said, as they moved to the door, and then silently down the drive under a night blazing with stars. At the gate she gave him her hand. “It seems so funny to be talking about trains in the easier circles of . . . ” As she hesitated he laughed at her.

“Are you afraid to name it?” he asked, and with a blush she said hastily: “ . . . heaven. O good night.” “Till tomorrow and good night,” he said. “Go with God.”

She took two steps, paused and looked back. “Thank you for heaven,” she said. “Good night.”

The next morning they were on the platform together, chatting of her prospects and capacities, when as they turned in their walk Pauline said: “Peter, look-there’s Mr. Wentworth. Is he coming to London too? He looks ill, doesn’t he?”

“Very ill,” Stanhope said gravely. “Shall we speak?” They moved down the platform, and as Wentworth turned his head in her direction Pauline smiled and waved. He looked at her vaguely, waggled a hand, and ceased. They came to him.

“Good morning, Mr. Wentworth,” Pauline said. “Are you going to London too?”

He looked away from them with an action as deliberate as if he had looked at them. He said in a low mumble: “Must excuse me . . . bad chill . . . bones feel it . . . can’t remember bones . . . faces . . . bones of faces, I mean.”

Stanhope said — “Wentworth! Wentworth! . . . stop here.”

The voice seemed to penetrate Wentworth’s mind. His eyes crawled back along the platform, up to Stanhope’s face; there they rested on the mouth as if they could not get farther than the place of the voice, they could not connect voice and eyes. He said: “Can’t stop . . . must get to . . . ” There,” exhausted, he stopped.

Pauline heard their train coming. She said: “May I travel with you, Mr. Wentworth?”

At that he came awake; he looked at her, and then again away. He said in a tone of alarm: “No, no. Told you Guard was right. Travelling with a lady. Good-bye, good-bye,” and hastily and clumsily made off up the platform as the train drew in. He scrambled into a distant compartment. Pauline sprang into her own, and turning looked at Stanhope.

“O Peter!” she said, “what’s wrong

He had been gazing after Wentworth; he turned back to her. “I think he has seen the Gorgon’s head that was hidden from Dante in Dis,” he said. “Well. . . . Pray for him, and for me, and for all. You will write?”

She stretched her hand from the window. “Will I write?” she said. “Good-bye. But, Peter, ought I to do anything?”

“You can’t do anything unless he chooses,” he answered. “If he doesn’t choose. . . . Pray. Good-bye. Go in peace,”

His eyes challenged her on the word; this time she did not pause. “Go in peace,” she said, “and thank you still.” The train began to move; he waved to her till she was out of sight, and then went out of the station to walk in the streets and sit by the beds of Battle Hill.

Wentworth sat in his corner. He felt he had forgotten something, and slowly and laboriously he went over in his mind all that he ought to possess. He found it difficult to remember why he had left his house at all. His servants had refused to stay; they had all gone that morning; so he had had to go. He couldn’t take the trouble to get others; he hadn’t enough energy. He would come to London, to an hotel; there he would be quiet, and not see any ghosts. A horrible screaming ghost had looked in through his window, a ghost that had fallen down in a fit, and he had had to go out and drag it away so that other ghosts could find it. He had been afraid of them since, and of those two just now who had made mouths at him, calling him by a strange word. He was going somewhere too. He was going to a supper. He had his evening things with him in his bag. It would be necessary to dress for the supper, the supper of scholars, of historical scholars, and he was an historical scholar. He remembered what he was, if not who he was. It was true he had said the Grand Duke’s Guard was correct though it wasn’t, but he was an historical scholar, and he was going to his own kind of people, to Aston Moffatt.

As the name came to him, Wentworth sat up in his corner and became almost his own man again. He hated Aston Moffatt. Hate still lived in him a little, and hate might almost have saved him, though nothing else could, had he hated with a scholar’s hate. He did not; his hate and his grudge were personal and obscene. In its excitement nevertheless he remembered what he had left behind — his watch. He had over-wound it weeks ago, on some day when he had seen a bad play, and had put it by to have it mended. But it was too much trouble, and now he had left it in his drawer, and couldn’t tell the time. There would be clocks in London, clocks all round him, all going very quickly, because time went very quickly. It went quickly because it was unending, and it was always trying to get to its own end. There was only one point in it with which he had any concern-the time of the last supper. It would be the last supper; he would not go and meet Aston Moffatt again. But he would go to-night because he had accepted and had his clothes, and to show he was not afraid of Moffatt. That was the only time he wanted to know, the time of his last supper. Afterwards, everything would look after itself. He slept in his corner, his last sleep.

The train stopped at Marylebone, and he woke. He muddled on, with the help of a porter, to the Railway Hotel. He had thought of that in the train; it would save bother. He usually went to some other, but he couldn’t remember which. The ordinary habits of his body carried him on, and the automatic habit of his mind, including his historic automatic. History was his hobby, his habit; it had never been more. Its austerity was as far from him now as the Eucharists offered in the Church of St. Mary la Bonne, or the duties of the dead, or the ceremonies of substituted love. He automatically booked a room, ate some lunch, and then lay down. This time he did not sleep; the noise of London kept him awake; besides he was alone. The creature that had been with him so long was with him no more. It had gone upstairs with him for the last time two nights before, and had his former faculties lived he would have seen how different it was. After the passage of the dead man it had never quite regained its own illusive apparition; senility and youth had mingled in its face, and in their mingling found a third degree of corruption. At the hour of the falling in of the shed of Lilith it had thinned to a shape of twilight. Meaning and apparent power had gone out of it. it was a thing the dead man might have met under his own pallid sky, and less even than that. In the ghostly night that fell on the ruins of Gomorrah it had tottered round its father and paramour, who did not yet know through what destruction they went. His eyes were dimmed. Those who look, in Stanhope’s Dantean phrase, on the head of the Gorgon in Dis, do not know, until Virgil has left them, on what they gaze. In the night she was withdrawn; the substance of illusion in her faded, and alongside his heavy sleep she changed and changed, through all degrees of imbecile decay, till at last she was quite dispelled.

He was alone. He lay awake, and waking became aware of his ancient dream. Now he was near the end of his journey. He saw below him the rope drawn nearer and nearer to the wall, if it were a wall. He looked up; above him the rope seemed to end in the moon, which shone so fully in the dark, millions of miles away. Down all those miles he had slowly climbed. It was almost over now; he was always a little lower, and when he stood up he did not lose the dream. Through his bathing and dressing and going down and finding a taxi he was still on his rope. He felt once for his watch, and remembered he had not got it, and looked up at the shining silver orb above, and found that that was his watch. It was also a great public clock at which he was staring; but he could not make it out — moon or watch or clock. The time was up there; but he could not see it. He thought: “I shall be just in time.” He was, and only just; as close to its end as to the end of the rope.

He got into his taxi. It went off along the High Street, and then was held up behind a policeman’s arm. He was looking out of the window, when he thought a creaking voice said in his ear, as if a very old woman was in the seat beside him: “Madame Tussaud’s.” He did not look round, because no one was ever there, but he stared at the great building which seemed to glow out of the darkness of the side of the abyss, and there rose in him the figure of what it contained. He had never been there, though in a humorous moment he had once thought of taking Adela, but he knew what was in it-wax images. He saw them-exquisitely done, motionless, speechless, thoughtless; and he saw them being shifted. Hanging on his rope, he looked out through the square of light in the darkness and saw them all — Caesar, Gustavus, Cromwell, Napoleon, Foch, and saw himself carrying them from one corner to another, and putting them down and picking them up and bringing them somewhere else and putting them down. There were diagrams, squares and rectangles, on the floor, to show where they should go; and as he ran across the hall with a heavy waxen thing on his shoulder he knew it was very important to put it down in the right diagram. So he did, but just as he went away the diagram under the figure changed and no longer fitted, and he had to go back and lift the thing up and take it off to another place where the real diagram was. This was always happening with each of them and all of them, so that six or seven or more of him had to be about, carrying the images, and hurrying past and after each other on their perpetual task. He could never get the details correct; there was always a little thing wrong, a thing as tiny as the shoulder-knots on the uniforms of the Grand Duke’s Guard. Then the rope vibrated as the taxi started again, and he was caught away; the last vestige of the history of men vanished for ever. Vibration after vibration-he was very near the bottom of his rope. He himself was moving now; he was hurrying. The darkness rushed by. He stopped. His hand, in habitual action, had gone to his pocket for silver, but his brain did not follow it. His feet stepped, in habitual action, off the rope on to the flat ground. Before him there was a tall oblong opening in the dark, faintly lit. He had something in his hand-he turned, holding it out; there was a silver gleam as it left his hand, and he saw the whole million-mile-long rope vanishing upward and away from him with incredible rapidity towards the silver moon which ought to have been in his waistcoat pocket, because it was the watch he had overwound. Seeing that dazzling flight of the rope upwards into the very centre of the shining circle, he thought again, “I’m just in time.” He was standing on the bottom of the abyss; there remained but a short distance in any method of mortal reckoning for him to take before he came to a more secret pit where there is no measurement because there is no floor. He turned towards the opening and began his last journey.

He went a little way, and came into a wider place, where presently there were hands taking off a coat he discovered himself to be wearing. He was looking at himself; for an instant he had not recognized his own face, but he did now, over a wide shining oval thing that reminded him of the moon. He was wearing the moon in front of him. But he was in black otherwise; he had put on a neat fantastic dress of darkness. The moon, the darkness, and the — only no rope, because that had gone away, and no watch, because he had done something or other to it, and it had gone away too. He tried to think what a watch was and how it told him the time. There were marks on it which meant something to do with time, but he didn’t know what. Voices came to him out of the air and drove him along another corridor into another open space. And there suddenly before him was Sir Aston Moffatt.

The shock almost restored him. If he had ever hated Sir Aston because of a passion for austere truth, he might even then have laid hold on the thing that was abroad in the world and been saved. If he had been hopelessly wrong in his facts and yet believed them so, and believed they were important in themselves, he might have felt a touch of the fire in which the Marian martyr had gone to his glory, and still been saved. In the world of the suicides, physical or spiritual, he might have heard another voice than his and seen another face. He looked at Sir Aston and thought, not “He was wrong in his facts”, but “I’ve been cheated”. It was his last consecutive thought.

Sir Aston was decidedly deaf and extremely talkative, and had a sincere admiration for his rival. He came straight across to Wentworth, and began to talk. The world, which Wentworth had continuously and persistently denied in favour of himself, now poured itself over him, and as if in a deluge from heaven drove him into the depths. Very marvellous is the glorious condescension of the Omnipotence; the myth of the fire which was rained over the plain now incarnated itself in Sir Aston Moffatt. Softly and gently, perpetually and universally, the chatty sentences descended on the doomed man, each sentence a little prick of fire, because, as he stood there, he realized with a sickness at heart that a voice was talking and he did not know what it was saying. He heard two sounds continually repeated: “Went-worth, Went-worth.” He knew that those two noises meant something, but he could not remember what. If all the faces that were about him would go away he might remember, but they did not go. They gathered round him, and carried him forward in the midst of them, through a doorway. As he went through it he saw in front of him tables, and with a last flash of memory knew that he had come there to eat and drink. There was his chair, at the bottom left corner, where he had always sat, his seat in the Republic. He went to it with an eager trot. It was waiting for him as it had always waited, for ever and ever; all his life and from the creation of the world he had sat there, he would sit there at the end, looking towards the — he could not think what was the right name for the tall man at the other end, who had been talking to him just now. He looked at him and tried to smile, but could not, for the tall man’s eyes were blank of any meaning, and gazed at him emptily. The Republic deserted him. His smile ceased. He was at last by his chair; he would always sit there, always, always. He sat down.

As he did so, he knew he was lost. He could not understand anything about him. He could just remember that there had been one moment when a sudden bright flash had parted from him, fleeing swiftly across the sky into its source, and he wanted that moment back; he wanted desperately to hold on to the rope. The rope was not there. He had believed that there would be for him a companion at the bottom of the rope who would satisfy him for ever, and now he was there at the bottom, and there was nothing but noises and visions which meant nothing. The rope was not there. There were faces, which ceased to be faces, and became blobs of whitish red and yellow, working and twisting in a horrible way that yet did not surprise him, because nothing could surprise him. They moved and leaned and bowed; and between them were other things that were motionless now but might at any moment begin to move and crawl. Away over them was a huge round white blotch, with black markings on it, and two long black lines going round and round, one very fast and one very slow. This was time, too fast for his brain, too slow for his heart. If he only had hold of the rope still, he could perhaps climb out of this meaningless horror; at least, he could find some meaning and relation in it all. He felt that the great blotch had somehow slid up and obscured the shining silver radiance into which a flash out of him had gone, and if he could get the rope he could climb past, or, with great shuddering, even through the horrible blotch, away out of this depth where anything might be anything, and was anything, for he did not know what it was. The rope was not there.

He shrank into himself, trying to shut his eyes and lose sight of this fearful opposite of the world he had known. Quite easily he succeeded. But he could not close his ears, for he did not know how to manage the more complex coordination of shoulders and arms and hands. So there entered into him still a small, steady, meaningless flow of sound, which stung and tormented him with the same lost knowledge of meaning; small burning flames flickered down on his soul. His eyes opened again in mere despair. A little hopeless voice came from his throat. He said, and rather gasped than spoke: “Ah! ah!” Then everything at which he was looking rushed together and became a point, very far off, and he also was a point opposite it; and both points were rushing together, because in this place they drew towards each other from the more awful repulsion of the void. But fast as they went they never reached one another, for out of the point that was not he there expanded an anarchy of unintelligible shapes and hid it, and he knew it had gone out, expiring in the emptiness before it reached him. The shapes turned themselves into alternate panels of black and white. He had forgotten the name of them, but somewhere at some time he had thought he knew similar forms and they had had names. These had no names, and whether they were or were not anything, and whether that anything was desirable or hateful he did not know. He had now no consciousness of himself as such, for the magical mirrors of Gomorrah had been broken, and the city itself had been blasted, and he was out beyond it in the blankness of a living oblivion, tormented by oblivion. The shapes stretched out beyond him, all half turned away, all rigid and silent. He was sitting at the end, looking up an avenue of nothingness, and the little flames licked his soul, but they did not now come from without, for they were the power, and the only power, his dead past had on him; the life, and the only life, of his soul. There was, at the end of the grand avenue, a bobbing shape of black and white that hovered there and closed it. As he saw it there came on him a suspense; he waited for something to happen. The silence lasted; nothing happened. In that pause expectancy faded. Presently then the shape went out and he was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void.


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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02