The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Ten


It was still hardly six o’clock. Mr. Coningsby had been put to bed, after Nancy had flown to welcome him and her aunt — to rather more than welcome her aunt, perhaps, for Sybil felt in the clinging embrace something she could have believed to be a clutching despair. She looked at the girl intently as they drew apart. Nancy’s face was colourless, her eyes very tired: the new light which had for weeks shone from her was eclipsed, and her movements were heavy and troubled. “Where’s Henry?” Sybil casually asked. “O, shut away somewhere,” Nancy said, and shut herself away even more secretly.

Ralph was introduced and taken to have hot drinks and a hot bath. It appeared that he had determined to rush across in his car from the house where he was staying, to hurl Christmas greetings at his people on Christmas Day, and then to tear back. He was slightly ashamed of the intention, more especially as in the first excited feeling of safety he had told Sybil that he had thought it would please his father.

“That was very nice of you, Ralph,” she said warmly.

“O, I don’t know,” he answered vaguely. “I mean — he was looking a bit aged the other day, I thought, and if a man’s getting on . . . well, I mean he likes people to think about him a bit, I suppose. I mean, it wouldn’t matter two grey Grimalkins to me whether anyone came to see me on Christmas Day or not; there’s always plenty of people about anyhow. But he doesn’t seem to get up to more than about forty per h. at the best, does he?”

“And what’s yours normally?” Sybil said gravely.

“O, I don’t know; say, a lusty sixty,” Ralph meditated. “But I’m rather a quiet one really, Aunt Sybil. I mean —”

Here he was interrupted, and only given time hastily to explain how the storm had caught and held the car; how he had at last got out and gone a little way to see if there was another road or anything; how he had lost his way back, and then encountered the other two wanderers, with whom he had gone along — partly because they had seemed to be aiming somewhere, partly to give Joanna an arm. “And I must say,” he added quietly and hastily to Sybil, “the set of carols that she sung all the time curdled anything in me that the snow didn’t. O, she was a lively little Robin Redbreast.”

Sybil thought, as she herself was carried off — quite unnecessarily, she assured them — that there was something not wholly inapplicable in the phrase. The two women were apparently the least exhausted of all the five. Joanna was sitting on one of the hall chairs, her old red cloak pulled round her, and snow melting and pouring from her on every side. Aaron obviously wasn’t a bit pleased, but nothing could be done. He couldn’t push Joanna and Stephen out into the blizzard, and no one naturally would help him, and they wouldn’t go. “But I wonder,” Sybil thought, “why they dislike each other so. Is it just family, or is it something special?”

She would not go to bed, certainly not, but hot drinks — yes; and a hot bath — yes; and a complete change — yes. Drinks and baths and changes were exquisite delights in themselves; part of an existence in which one beauty was always providing a reason and a place for an entirely opposite beauty. As society for solitude, and walking for sitting down, and one dress for another, and emotions for intellect, and snowstorms for hot drinks, and in general movement for repose, repose for movement, and even one movement for another, so highly complex was the admirable order of the created universe. It was all rather like Henry’s charming little figures in their perpetual dance; perhaps they were a symbol of it; perhaps that was what was meant by Aaron’s uncertain phrase about being magnetized by the earth. They were the most beautiful things, with that varying light irradiating and striking outward from each, and a kind of gold aureole hanging in the air, which had expanded and heightened while Nancy’s fortune was being tried. As she saw them again in her mind she saw at the same time the faint golden gleam that had possessed the air around her brother. She knew where the golden light came from among the images; it came from the figure of the Fool who moved so much the most swiftly, who seemed to be everywhere at once, whose irradiation shone therefore so universally upward that it maintained the circle of gold high over all, under which the many other rays of colour mingled and were dominated now by one, now by another. It had been, this afternoon, as if some figure — say, the Fool himself — had come speeding down from his own splendid abode of colour to her brother’s side. She contemplated the idea; so, one might imagine, only no imagination could compass it, so did the beautiful perfection which was in and beyond all things make haste to sustain its creatures in their mood; immediacy to immediacy. She moved her foot lazily through the water of the bath, and half-pretended, half-believed, that little sparkles of gold rose and floated off as she did so: then she abandoned the fancy hastily. “I’m getting mythical,” she said aloud; “this is the way superstitions and the tantum mali arise. Only,” she added, in a charming apology, “I knew I was doing it, and I have left off. sPeople,” she went on thinking, “have killed one another on questions like that — did you or did you not see a golden sparkle? Well, the answer is, no, I didn’t, but I saw the ripples in the water, and the top of my toe, and even though it may annoy Lothair, it is a very well-shaped toe. How sweet of Love to have a toe like that!”

She wondered as she dressed where Henry was; she’d rather expected to find him also in the hall. Nancy’s “shut away somewhere” had been obscure — not merely in the meaning but in the tone. It hadn’t been bitter; it hadn’t been plaintive; it had been much more like an echo of despair. Despair? Had Henry refused to come out or something? Had he a complex about snow? Did it make him go what Ralph — if she had the phrase right — called “ga-ga”? If so, Nancy’s winters — except for the luck of the English climate, to which Lothair (judging from his continual protests about it) had a profound objection — Nancy’s winters might be rather trying. Henry might have to hibernate. She imagined Nancy teaching her children: “Mother, what animals hibernate?” “Bears, tortoises, hedgehogs, and your father.” Squirrels, snakes? Did snakes and squirrels hibernate? It couldn’t be that; he wouldn’t have become a barrister if the Long Vacation was merely a prelude to a sound sleep. So awkward if he could only have summer clients. “Nobody could have much affiance in a barrister who could only take summer clients.”

She reordered her thoughts; this was mere dithering. But dithering was rather nice; occasionally she and Nancy had dithered together. Nancy. What was wrong with the child? She had sat down to put on her shoes, and — one off and one on — she turned to her habitual resource. She emptied her mind of all thoughts and pictures: she held it empty till the sudden change in it gave her the consciousness of the spreading out of the stronger will within; then she allowed that now unimportant daily mind to bear the image and memory of Nancy into its presence. She did not, in the ordinary sense, “pray for” Nancy; she did not presume to suggest to Omniscience that it would be a thoroughly good thing if It did; she merely held her own thought of Nancy stable in the midst of Omniscience. She hoped Nancy wouldn’t mind, if she knew. If, she thought, as, the prayer over, she put on her other shoe — if she had believed in a Devil, it would have been awkward to know whether or not it would be permissible to offer the Devil to Love in that way. Because the Devil might dislike it very much, and then . . . However, she didn’t believe in the Devil, and Nancy, up to lunch anyhow, had believed in a — if not the — mystery of Love. She determined to go and see if Nancy by any chance would like her to listen. Besides, there was Lothair — who in a strange home would certainly want her to be somewhere about. Also there was Joanna — Sybil rather looked forward to a conversation with Joanna, who seemed to her to have, on the whole, a just view of the world, if rather prejudiced against the enemies of Horus.

On the point of going downstairs, she checked herself. It was possible that Nancy, relieved from anxiety about her father, was not downstairs, but in her own room next door. Sybil considered this, and decided, if she were, that there would be no harm in venturing a visit; it could easily be ended. She went and knocked. A high, shaking voice said, “Come in.”

Nancy was lying on the bed; she barely looked round as her aunt entered, and, on the point of speaking, gave up the effort.

She looked worse than she had done downstairs; a more complete collapse showed in her. Sybil, from the door, beheld a dying creature, one in whom the power of Life was on the point of evacuating its last defences. But she looked also a creature betrayed, one in whom the power of Life had changed to Death while she was still aware. The storm that had attacked the bodies of others might have crushed her soul; a wan recognition of the earth lingered in her eyes before she fell into entire ruin. Sybil came swiftly across the room.

“What’s the matter, darling?” she said.

Nancy made a small movement with one hand, but didn’t answer. Sybil sat down on the bed, and very lightly took the hand in her own. They remained so for some minutes in silence; then, in a voice hardly breathing it, Sybil said:

“All beauty returns. Wait a little.”

Nancy trembled, as if the storm shook her from within; she said “No” in a moan and was silent. But the moan was at least life; the denial was at least consciousness; and Sybil ventured then so far as to put an arm round the girl’s shoulders. There she rested silent again, bending all the power that she had to find what remote relic of power still existed somewhere in that strange overthrow. Time went past, but after a long while Nancy’s fingers had closed ever so little more tightly on Sybil’s hand; her shoulder pressed ever so little more willingly against the encircling arm. The blizzard without struck again and again at the window, and suddenly for the first time Nancy shuddered when she heard it. In a horrible stifled voice she said, “You don’t know what that is.”

Sybil tightened her grasp and gathered Nancy more closely into eternity. As if the remorseless will of that peace broke her into utterance, Nancy said, still in the same horrible voice, “It’s Henry killing father.”

The executive part of Sybil’s mind had been so disciplined that it was not allowed to be startled. She said, and though her voice was low it was full of profounder wisdom than the words seemed to carry: “He came back with me.”

“If he didn’t,” Nancy answered, “if he’d died out there, if I’d died, the storm would have stopped. It won’t stop, now. It’ll go on for ever. It’s Henry killing father, and he can’t leave off. I’ve stopped him.”

Her brother’s fancy of “great men with clubs” came into Sybil’s mind for a perplexing moment. She dismissed it gently, not to break the deeper labour on which she was engaged. She answered with all the tenderness of her certainty: “You couldn’t do anything at all unless you were let, could you? And if you were let stop it, then stopping it was the most perfect thing that could happen. Only you mustn’t stop now.”

The storm shook and rattled at the windows. Nancy jerked violently and cried out: “Nothing can stop it. He’s lost them; he can’t.”

“What is it that’s lost?” Sybil asked commandingly, and the girl answered in almost a shriek, “The Tarots, the magical leaves.” She went on in a high torment: “He had them; he beat them up and down; he made the storm to kill father, and I knocked them away, and they’re gone, and nothing can stop the wind and the snow for ever. It’ll find father and it’ll drown the whole world. Hear it dancing! hear it singing! that’s the dance Henry keeps in his little room.”

“I know the dance,” Sybil said instantly. “Nancy, do you hear? I know the dance, and the figures that make the dance. The crown’s gold over them, and there’s a movement that Henry’s not known yet. Do you suppose that storm can ever touch the Fool?”

Why she used the words she didn’t know, but something in them answered the girl in the same terms in which she had cried out. Her face changed; there came into it a dim memory of life. She said, arrested in the midst of terror and death, “The Fool —”

“I saw the gold in the snow,” Sybil said, “and your father was in it and safe. Do you think the Tarots can ever escape while the Fool is here to hold them?”

“They say he doesn’t move,” Nancy breathed.

“But I saw him move,” Sybil answered, eternal peace in her voice, “and there’s no figure anywhere in heaven or earth that can slip from that partner. They are all his for ever.”

“The snow?” Nancy said.

“And you and I and Henry and your father,” Sybil answered. “It is only the right steps we have to mind.” She was not very clear what language she was using; as from the apostles on Pentecost, the single gospel flowed from her in accents she had not practised and syllables she had never learned. She added, deeply significant: “Your father came back with me; mayn’t Henry be waiting for you?”

As a proselyte in the streets of Jerusalem, drawn from the parts of Libya about Cyrene, hearing a new message in a familiar tongue, Nancy looked up for the first time.

“Why?” she said.

“Do you think the mystery of Love is only between those who like one another?” Sybil said. “Darling, you’re part of the mystery, and you’ll be sent to do mysterious things. Tell me — no, never mind the storm; it’s nothing; it’s under the feet of the Fool — tell me what’s happened.”

Uncertainly at first, and in no sort of order, Nancy began to pour out her story of all that she had known of the Tarots. She broke off, she went back to the beginning and leapt to the end, she confused her own experiences with what Henry had told her, and that again with what she believed Henry to desire, and all of it with her outraged will to love. It was confusion, but in the confusion, as if in a distant unity of person, went the motionless and yet moving figure of the Fool, and about his feet as he went flowed the innocent and ardent desire of the girl who told it to do all that she could — for Henry perhaps, but, even more than for Henry, for the unfathomable mystery of which she had known something and had half hoped, half-despaired to know more.

Sybil herself, being prepared for anything at any moment, as those who have surrendered themselves must naturally be, all amazement being concentrated in a single adoring amazement at the mere fact of Love, and leaving no startled surprise for the changes and new beauties that attend It — Sybil herself listened gravely and intelligently to the tale. She saw, not in her own mind so much as in Nancy’s, the whole earth, under the stress of what had been heard and seen, taking on a strange aspect. She saw — but this more in her own mind — the remote figure of the juggler, standing in the void before creation was, and flinging up the glowing balls which came into being as they left his hands, and became planets and stars, and they remained some of them poised in the air, but others fell almost at once and dropped down below and soared again, until the creating form was lost behind the flight and the maze of the worlds. She saw, as the girl’s excited voice rushed on, the four great figures between whom the earth itself hovered — the double manifestation of a single fact, the body and soul of human existence, the Emperor and the Empress, and diagonally opposite them, the hierophants male and female, the quadruple security of knowledge and process upon earth. The rushing chariot of the world came from among them, and it again parted, and on one side went the Hermit, the soul in its delighted solitude of contemplation, and on the other the Lovers, the soul in its delighted society of terrestrial love.

“And earth came out of them,” Nancy said breathlessly. Earth and air and fire and water — the lesser elements pouring down from below the Greater Trumps, but these also in the dance, and in each of those four cataracts she saw the figure of the Fool, leaping and dancing in joy. “So I thought it was the Hanged Man, and I screamed.” Nancy had dashed to another part of the tale, and Sybil remembered the crucifixions of her past, and by each of them, where she herself hung and screamed and writhed, she saw the golden halo and the hands of the Fool holding and easing her, and heard his voice murmuring peace. “And what shall we do? what shall we do?” the young creature babbled at last, and, half-risen, clutched hard at Sybil and broke into a storm of tears. But as she wept and agonized Sybil’s hands held and eased her and Sybil’s voice murmured peace.

How far her vivid intelligence at the moment believed the tale was another matter. Whether the pieces of painted papyrus and the ever-moving images, the story of newly created earth and the swift storm, Henry’s desire and her brother’s firmness, the sight of her own eyes and the vision of the rest, Nancy’s tragic despair and Joanna’s wild expectation — whether all these corresponded to some revelation of ultimate things she could not then tell, nor did she much mind. The thing that immediately concerned her was Nancy’s own heart. There was the division; there, justified or not, were bewilderment and fear. If it were delusion that possessed her, still it was clear that that delusion was too deep and far-reaching to be torn up by a few words of bright encouragement. If it were not delusion, if the strange and half-mystical signs and names of the Greater Trumps had meaning and life, then no doubt in due time of beneficence her own concern with them would be revealed. She held Nancy more closely.

“Dearest,” she said, “your father’s safe. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” Nancy sobbed.

“Tell me then — there, darling, quietly; all is well, all is most well — tell me, where’s Henry?”

“In his own room, I suppose,” Nancy said brokenly. “I— I ran away from him — when I knew.”

“Did he want you to — run away?” Sybil asked slowly.

“I don’t know — no,” Nancy said. “But I couldn’t stop. He’d been doing that awful thing — and I was terrified and ran away — and I love him. I can’t live if I don’t find him — and now I never shall.”

“But, darling, that’s not loving him,” Sybil gently protested. “That’s only preferring to live, isn’t it?”

“I don’t care what it is,” Nancy sobbed again. “If I could do anything, I would, but I can’t. Don’t you understand — he tried to kill father? There’s just Death between them, and I’m in the middle of it.”

“Then,” Sybil said, “there’s something that isn’t death, at least. And you might be more important than Death, mightn’t you? In fact, you might be life perhaps.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Nancy said, wresting herself free suddenly. “O, go away, Aunt Sybil. I’m going mad. Do go away.”

Sybil sat back on the bed. “Stand still and listen,” she said. “Nancy, you said it yourself, there’s death and there’s you. Are you going to be part of death against Henry and against your father? or are you going to be the life between them? You’ll be power one way or another, don’t doubt that; you’ve got to be. You’ve got to live in them or let them die in you. Make up your mind quickly, for the time’s almost gone.”

“I can’t do anything,” Nancy cried out.

Sybil stood up and went over to her. “Your father came back with me,” she said. “Go and see if Henry still has any idea of going anywhere with you. Go and see what he wants, and if you can give it to him, do. I’ll see to your father and you see to Henry. Do let’s get on to important things.”

“Give it to him!” Nancy exclaimed. “But . . . ”

“Dearest,” Sybil said, “he may not want now what he wanted two hours ago. People change their minds, you know. Yes, honestly. Go and live, go and love. Get farther, get farther now, with Henry if you can. If not — listen, Nancy — if not, and if you loved him, then go and agonize to adore the truth of Love. Now.” She gave the girl a little gentle shake, and moved away to the door, where she stopped, looked over her shoulder, said, “I should be as quick as I could, darling,” and went.

Nancy stared after her. “Go to Henry”? “Go and live”? “Go and love”? To be life or death between her lover and her father? Her hands to her cheeks, she stood, brooding over the dark riddle, seeing dimly some sort of meaning in it. Something had kept her father alive; something held her father and herself — if that something were waiting for her to move? to go to Henry? She couldn’t think what she could do there, or of what, divided and united at once by a terrible truth, they could possibly even speak. Life wasn’t all speaking. Love was being something, in some way. Was she now to be driven to be that, in the way that — who knows what? — chose? Slowly she began to move. Henry probably wouldn’t want her, but . . . She went gradually and uncertainly towards his room.

He was sitting, as she had been lying, in darkness. When she had knocked and got no answer, she had taken the risk of annoying him and had gone in, switching on the light. She saw him sitting by his table and switched it off again. Then she went delicately across the room, kneeled by him, touched him lightly, and said, “Henry!”

He did not answer. In a little she said again, “Darling,” and as still he made no sound she said no more, only went on kneeling by his chair. After many minutes he said, “Go. Go away.”

“I will,” she answered sincerely, “if you want me to, if I can’t help. Can I help?”

“How can you help?” he said. “There’s nothing for any of us but to wait for death. We shall all be with your father soon.”

“He’s back, quite safe,” she said. “Aunt Sybil met him and brought him back.”

“It was a pity; the storm will have to find him out again,” he answered. “Go and be with him till that happens.”

“Must it happen?” she asked, and he laughed.

“Unless you have a trick to lure back the chalices and the staffs,” he said. “If you can, you can put them in their order and seal up the storm. But since they are rushing and dancing about the sky I can’t tell how you’ll do it. Perhaps if you talked to those that are left —”

“Mightn’t we?” she asked, but he did not understand her.

“Try it,” he mocked her again. “Here are the four princes; take them and talk to them. Perhaps, since you struck all the rest loose, these will tell you where they are. O, to be so near, so near —!”

“I should have done it all the same if I’d known,” she said, “but I didn’t know — not that I should do that. I only wanted to hold your hands still.”

“They’ll be still enough soon,” he mocked, “and so will yours;” and suddenly his hand felt for and caught hers. “They’re beautiful hands,” he said; “though they’ve ruined the world, they’re beautiful hands. Do you know, Nancy, that you’ve done what thousands of priests and scientists have talked about? This is the end of the world. You’ve killed it — you and your beautiful hands. They’ve sent the snow and the wind over the whole world, and it’ll die. The dance is ending: the juggler’s finished with one ball.”

“Love them a little then,” she said, “if you’re sure. If you’re quite sure.”

“Can you bring back the staffs?” he asked, “from the one to the ten? Shall I open the window for you to call or catch them? Maybe one’s on the window-sill now.”

“Can’t the images help?” she asked. “I don’t know, but you should. Isn’t there any way in which they could command the Tarots?”

She felt him stiffen in the darkness. “Who told you that?” he said. “I can’t tell. I don’t know anything of what can be done from within. If . . . ”

“If —” she answered, and paused. “I will do anything with you that I can. What would you like me to do?”

His figure turned and leaned towards her. “You?” he said. “But you hated what I was doing, you wanted to save your father — of course you did; I’m not blaming you — but how can you help me now?”

She broke unexpectedly into a laugh, the sound of which surprised some solemn part of her nature, but seemed to bring freedom at once into herself and into the dark room, so that she felt relieved of her lingering fear. “O, Henry darling,” she said, “must those dancers of yours concentrate on my father? Haven’t they any way of doing things without bothering the poor dear? Don’t you think they might manage to save the world and yet leave him alone? Henry sweetest, how serious you are about it all!”

“You can laugh,” he said uncertainly, not as a question nor yet in anger, but as if he were feeling after some strange fact. “You can laugh . . . but I tell you it is the end of the world.”

She scrambled to her feet. “I begin to agree with Aunt Sybil,” she said; “it isn’t quite decent to break into the poor thing’s secrets when it’s gone to such trouble to keep them quiet. But since you and I together drove things wrong, shall you and I together see — only see, darling — if we can put them straight?”

“You’re afraid of the Tarots,” he said; “you always have been.”

“Never again,” she said, “or yes — perhaps again. I’ll be afraid again, I’ll fall again, I’ll hate and be angry again. But just for a moment there’s something that runs and laughs and all your Tarots are flying along with it, and why shouldn’t it catch them for us if we ask it very nicely? Only we won’t hurt anyone, will we, if we can help it? Nothing’s important enough for that.”

He got to his feet heavily. “There’s no way anywhere without hurting someone,” he said.

“Darling, how gloomy you are,” she said. “Is this what comes of making blizzards and trying to kill your own Nancy’s own father? Perhaps there’s a way everywhere without hurting anyone — unless,” she added, with a touch of sadness clouding the full gaiety that had seized her, “unless they insist on being hurt. But let’s suppose they won’t, and let’s pretend they don’t, and let’s be glad that my father’s safe, and let’s see if the golden dancers can call back the staffs and the cups. I think perhaps we owe the world that.” She kissed him lightly. “It was sweet of you to pick out a nice soothing way of doing what you wanted,” she said. “Some magicians would have put him in a barn and set it on fire, or forced him into a river and let him drown. You’ve a nice nature, Henry, only a little perverted here and there. All great geniuses are like it, they say. I think you must be a genius, darling; you take your job so solemnly. Like Milton and Michael Angelo and Moses. Do you know, I don’t believe there’s a joke in all the Five Books of Moses. I can’t see very well, Henry, but I think you’re frowning. And I’m talking. And talking and frowning won’t do anything, will they? O, hark at it! Come along, my genius, or we shan’t save the world before your own pet blizzard has spoilt it.”

“There’s no other way,” he said, “but I warn you that you don’t know what may happen. Perhaps even this isn’t a way.”

“Well, perhaps it isn’t,” she answered. “But they are dancing, aren’t they, dearest? And perhaps, if we mean to love —”

“Do you love me still then?” he asked.

“I never loved you more and yet I never loved you less,” she told him. “O, don’t let’s stop to ask riddles. And, anyhow, I wasn’t thinking of you, so there! Come, darling, or your aunt will be doing something curious. Yours is a remarkable family, Henry; you get all het up over your hobbies. And so you shall if you like, bless you! only not just now.”

“Joanna —” he exclaimed, unconsciously following her as she drew him towards the door. “Is she here?”

“She is,” Nancy said, “but we won’t worry about her now. Take me to them, darling, for the dance is in my ears and the light’s in my eyes, and this is why I was born, and there was glory in the beginning and is now and ever shall be, and let’s run, let’s run, for the world’s going quickly and we must be in front of it to-night.”

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