The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eleven


In the hall below, the kitten stretched itself and yawned. Sybil had put it down when she was once well inside and asked one of the maids to look after it. But there had been not time yet; Mr. Coningsby, Ralph, Sybil herself, had to be seen to. And now there were still Joanna and Stephen. Aaron Lee, looking at his sister with something very much like watchful hatred, said: “Now you’re here, Joanna, you’d better get into bed. And so,” he added, jerking his head at Stephen, “had he.”

“Yes, Aaron,” said Joanna docilely, with a little giggle. “It’s a bad night to be out in, isn’t it?”

Aaron glanced round him; the three, except for the kitten, were alone in the hall.

“Why have you come?” he asked.

“To see you, dear,” the old woman said. “So’s Stephen. He’s very fond of you, Stephen is. Aren’t you, Stephen?”

“Yes, grandmother,” Stephen answered obediently.

“He’s very big, isn’t he?” Joanna ran on. “Much bigger than you, dear Aaron.” She hopped off her chair and began to prowl round the hall, sniffing. Presently she came to the kitten and stood staring at it. The kitten rubbed itself against her leg, felt the wet, and sprang aside. The old woman, bending, scratched its head, and began muttering to it in words which the others couldn’t hear.

The kitten jumped up, fell down, twisted over itself, dashed off, and dashed back. Joanna gesticulated at it, and it crouched watching her.

“You’d better get to bed, Joanna,” Aaron exclaimed to her. “Get those things off and get between the blankets. You’ll be ill if you don’t.”

“You fool, Aaron,” Joanna said. “Illness can’t touch me any more than death. I shall never be ill. I shall be transformed when the body that’s lost is made whole.” She turned her face towards him. “And where’ll you be then, Aaron? Screeching among the tormentors.”

“You’re mad,” Aaron answered. “You’re a mad old woman hobbling about in a dream.”

She left the kitten and almost ran back to him. “Dream, hey?” she snarled. “Little dream, Aaron Lee, for you that help to hide my baby.”

“Your baby’s dead,” Aaron snarled back, as the two small old creatures faced each other fiercely and despitefully. “Don’t you know that by now?”

She caught at his coat, and at the movement of her arm the water that still ran from her was flung wide-spattering around. “My baby never dies,” she cried, “and you know it. That’s why you hate me.” Her whole manner changed. “But you’re right, dear Aaron,” she mumbled, “yes, you’re right. Give me your bed to sleep in and your plate to eat from and I’ll give you a plate and a bed one day in a finer house than this. Give me a kiss first, Aaron, and I’ll never set Stephen on to you to twist the news of the grave where you’ve hidden him out of your throat. Kiss me, Aaron.”

She was up against him, and he stepped sharply back to face her. His foot came down on the tail of the kitten, which was smelling at his shoes. It yelped; Aaron tottered and lost his footing, staggering a pace or two away. He turned fiercely on the kitten, which had dashed wildly across the hall.

“Put it out,” he cried, “put it back in the snow. Who brought it in? Stephen, catch it and put it out.”

The young man, who all this while had been leaning dully against the wall, the snow melting from him, his eyes following Joanna wherever she went, moved uncertainly. Joanna made no sign, and he, with movements that seemed clumsy but were exact, first attracted the kitten and then caught it up in his great hands.

“What shall I do with it, grandmother?” he said.

“Put it out,” Aaron called to him.

“Ah, no, don’t put it back in the snow,” Joanna said. “Ah, it’s a cunning little cat; it’s very small, but everything’s small at first. It’ll grow; it’ll grow. Let it sleep in my blankets, Aaron; the cats know where the blood fell, and they sit in a circle round the hidden place watching for God. Have you ever found their eyes looking at you, Aaron, when you were shuffling the cards? little green eyes looking up at you? little claws that scratched? Give it to me, and it’ll sleep till the right time comes.”

“No cat’ll come to you in those drenched clothes,” Aaron said, with a curious flat effort at common sense. But, unhearing, she beckoned to Stephen, and, when he came, took the kitten from him. It wriggled a little in her hands and mewed once, but it did not make any serious effort to escape. She held it near her face, peering and muttering at it, and it stared back at her. The colloquy of their eyes lasted some dozen seconds; then Joanna said: “Show me where I’m to rest, Aaron.” A maid returned at the moment. Aaron conferred with her and then said abruptly to Joanna, “Go along with Amabel; she’ll show you.” Then to Stephen, “And you — come with me. You can rub yourself down and have some food.”

“Ah, let Stephen sleep in the same room with me,” Joanna cried, “for we’re used to it and we’re uneasy apart. Haystack or lych-gate or king’s house or quarry, it’s all one to us so long as there’s Stephen to watch while I’m dreaming and me to wake while Stephen sleeps. Only he can’t see my dreams, and though I see his they’re only water and wind and fire, and it’s in earth that the other’s hidden till Horus comes.”

With the word a quietness fell on her; she brought the kitten against her cheek and crooned to it, as she followed the bothered and dubious Amabel away.

Stephen presumably “had some food”, but he was not at the late and bewildered dinner to which, soon after, Aaron sat down with Sybil and Ralph. Aaron muttered something about Henry’s probably being busy, and seemed to take it for granted that Nancy, after her experience of the storm, was also in bed. Sybil, when she grasped this, thought that Nancy might have been annoyed to have it thought so, but then even Sybil had not quite grasped the true history of the afternoon. She knew that Nancy believed that Henry had loosed the storm on Mr. Coningsby, by means of the magical operation of the power-infused Tarots. But she was not aware of the short meeting of Henry and Aaron, when the younger man had recovered consciousness to find his grandfather, summoned by an agitated mind, bending over him. In a few sentences, as he came to himself, he told Aaron what had happened. Aaron stepped back, appalled.

“But then,” he faltered, “we can’t stop the winds,” and his face paled. “We shall all be killed.”

“Yes,” Henry said. “That’s the end of all our dreams.”

As he spoke he had gone away to his own room, to sit in darkness brooding over his hope and his defeat, waiting for the crash that must come when the force of the released elements broke in on the house, and had sat so till Nancy came to him. But Aaron had refused, in his own mind, to believe it; it couldn’t be so. Something might happen, some wild chance might save them. He had never cared much for Henry’s intrusion into the place of the powers, and Henry might easily be wrong. The manuscripts told them this and that, but the manuscripts might be wrong. In the belief that they were true, Henry and he had plotted to destroy his guest — but the storm might be a coincidence; Coningsby might be safe; in an ordinary storm he would be; it wasn’t as if, all put together, it was a long distance or a great danger, unless — unless the snow and wind had been aimed at him. If they were not, if it was chance, if indeed the Tarots and the images had no power in themselves and were but passive reflections of more universal things, if the mystery of both was but a mystery of knowledge and prophecy and not of creation and direction — why then — the stranger would come back safely, and, if he did, why then they would all be safe. That some of the paintings should be lost was indeed a catastrophe; no one now could justly divine the movement of the images and their meaning. The telling of fortunes would be for ever but a childish game, and never the science of wisdom. But he would be alive. The long study in which he had spent his years might partly fail. But he would be alive. On the very verge of destruction, he cried out against destruction; he demanded a sign, and the sign was given him. Lothair Coningsby came stumbling into the hall, and when Aaron saw him he drew great breaths of relief. The storm was but natural; it would cease.

In this recovered quiet of mind he was able to deal with immediate practical questions; he was even able to confront Joanna with his old jealousy and hatred. Since, many years before, the images had come into his possession, since his father and he had — O, away in his boyhood — taken them (with what awful and breathless care! what almost eye-shutting reverence!) from the great round old silver case — only some six inches high, but marvellously huge in diameter — in which for centuries, so his father had told him, his hidden secret of the gipsies had been borne about the world, covered by wrappings and disguises, carried in waggons and carts, unknown even to most of their own wandering bands, who went straying on and did not know that one band of all those restless companies possessed the mystery which long since some wise adept of philosophical truths had made in the lands of the east or the secret houses of Europe: Egyptian or Jew or Christian heretic — Paulician, Bogophil, or Nestorian — or perhaps still farther off in the desert-circled empire of Abyssinia, for there were hints of all in the strange medley of the sign-bearing images, and the symbols wore no accepted or traditional aspect; their familiarity was foreign, they had been before the building of churches and sects, aboriginal, infinite; but, from wherever they came, he who had made them, and the papyrus paintings with them, up to seventy-eight degrees of knowledge, had cased and hidden them, and sent them out on everlasting wanderings without as they kept among themselves the everlasting dance within. But at that making and hiding the Tarot cards had lain in due mysterious order on and about the golden base of the Tarot images, each subtly vibrating to the movements of its mightier golden original, as that in turn moved in correspondence to the movement of that full and separate centre of the created dance which it microcosmically symbolized. There was to be a time, the legends said, when one should arise who should understand the mystery of the cards and the images, and by due subjection in victory and victory in subjection should come to a secret beyond all, which secret — it had always been supposed by those few who had looked on the shapes, and few they had been even over the centuries — had itself to do with the rigid figure of the Fool. But the dark fate that falls on all mystical presentations, perhaps because they are not presentations only, had fallen on this; the doom which struck Osiris in the secular memory of Egypt, and hushed the holy, sweet, and terrible Tetragrammaton in the ritual of Judah, and wounded the Keeper of the Grail in the Castle of the Grail, and by the hand of the blind Hoder pierced the loveliest of all the Northern gods, and after all those still everywhere smote and divided and wounded and overthrew and destroyed; by the sin of man and yet by more and other than the sin of man, for the myth of gods and rebellious angels had been invoked — by reason, no doubt, to explain, but by something deeper than reason to frame the sense of a dreadful necessity in things: the need that was and yet must not be allowed to be, the inevitability that must be denied, the fate that must be rejected, so only and only by such contradictions of mortal thought did the nature of the universe make itself felt by man. Prophesied itself within itself by the Tower that fell continually or by the fearful shape of Set who was the worker of iniquity ruling over his blinded victims, prophesied thus within itself, the doom came to pass on the mystery of the images, none knew when, for some said as long since as the son of the first maker, who fell from his father’s wisdom, and others but in the very generation that preceded the speaker’s. But, whenever the sin was done, it chanced upon a night that one opened the silver case, sealed with zodiacal signs, and, daring the illustrious beauty that shone forth, thrust in his hands and tore out the translucent painted leaves, thinking that by them alone he might tell the fortunes of men and grow rich by his fellows’ yearning to know what was to be, or wantonly please an idle woman in the low chambers of Kieff or Paris. The images he dared not touch, and the golden base that carried them he could not. So he fled, completing the sacrilege, and died wretchedly, the tale said, but rather because it was thought proper that the sinner should suffer than because anything certain was known. Thus the leaves of the presentation were carried one way, and the golden shapes another, and the people of the secret waited in hope and despair, as Israel languishes till the Return, and the Keeper till the coming of the Haut Prince, and Osiris the slain till Horus overcome his foes, and Balder in the place of shades till after Ragnarok, and all mankind till the confusions of substance be abolished and the unity of person be proclaimed. But, even when the paintings had been found by chance and fate and high direction in the house of Lothair Coningsby, yet the wills of the finders had been set on their own purposes, on experiment of human creation or knowledge of human futurity, and again the mystical severance had manifested in action the exile of the will from its end.

To that last conclusion, as his thoughts recalled the myth, Aaron, sitting at the dinner-table, did not permit himself to reach. In his father’s time it had been determined, by a few among the wanderers, that the far-borne images would be carried no farther, since it was yearly becoming more difficult to evade the curiosity and power of the magistrates; enough money, from some rich and many poor, had been gathered, a solitary house had been found, and the treasure had been given into the charge of the oldest of the Lees. The room had been prepared and the silver chest carried in, and, that the influence of the dance might more quickly draw to itself its lesser instruments, the images had been set upon the new-shaped table. But upon their father’s death the knowledge of the charge had been, as it were, separated between Aaron and Joanna, and both again misunderstood the requirements of devotion, Joanna in hot dreams of her child, Aaron in cold study of the continuous maze. Her madness drove her wide, his folly kept him still; and when she came to him he forbade her even a sight of the sacred thing. So through years their anger grew between them, and now she lay in his home.

He hated and feared her, yet he did not well know what in her he feared and hated. He did not much think she would dare to touch the images, and, anyhow, without Henry’s aid or his own she could not find them through the outer and inner chambers. It was perhaps no more than the intensity of her desire, and the mad energy which for her turned the names of Egypt to living and invocable deities, and within that her own identification of herself with the Divine Mother and Seeker. It was strange and absurd, but it was also rather terrifying — she was so much one with her dream that at times her dream invaded like the mists of the Nile his own knowledge of her as Joanna. But she was here, and nothing could be done. Perhaps Miss Coningsby, who seemed from Henry’s account to have been remarkably successful with her on the road, would be able to quieten her if she fell into one of her fits.

Sybil, while she ate and drank, and maintained the conversation as well as could be, considering the spoiled dinner, their preoccupied minds, and the increasing hurricane without, contemplated at the same time the house and its occupants. She saw it, against the background of a dark sky filled with tumultuous snow, part of it yet its opposite, its radiance of enclosed beauty against a devastation of wilder beauty, and in the house she saw the lovely forms of humanity each alive with some high virtue, each to its degree manifesting the glory of universal salvation. Her brother, industrious, as generous as he knew how to be, hungry for peace, assured, therefore, of finding peace; Henry and Nancy — Henry, she thought, had been a little mistaken if he imagined that violence of that kind would bring him to the kingdom; stillness rather, attention, discipline — but Henry and Nancy — she ardently hoped they were together and moving into peace; Ralph with his young freshness and innocence; Aaron with his patient study and courtesy — even if the courtesy had hidden some other intention, as, if Nancy were right, it probably had, still courtesy in itself was good and to be enjoyed: yes, certainly good was not to be denied in itself because motives were a little mixed. Her own motives were frequently mixed; the difference between delighting in . . . well, in the outrageous folly of mankind (including her own) and provoking it grew sometimes a little blurred. She was uneasily conscious that she sometimes lured her brother in London into showing off his pomposity, his masterful attitude towards his employees, because it seemed to her so wonderful that he should be able to behave so. “My fault,” Sybil sighed to herself, and offered herself once more as a means whereby Love could more completely love the butcher. Not, of course, that Love didn’t completely love the butcher already, but through her perhaps . . . however, that argument was for the theologians. Anyhow, with that sin in her mind it was not for her to rebuke Aaron or Nancy. Before perfect Love there wasn’t much to choose between them. At the same time, without excusing herself, it was up to the butcher to see that he wasn’t drawn, if he didn’t want to be, even as subtly as she knew she did it; and in the same way it was up to her to see that the charm of Aaron’s manners didn’t any further involve her brother in disagreeable experiences. The courtesy was one thing; the purpose of the courtesy was another thing; there need be no confusion of substance. She smiled back at Aaron. “And where,” she asked, “is my kitten?”

“In my sister’s room, as a matter of fact,” Aaron answered. “If you want it —”

She sighed a negative. “Why, no,” she said, “of course not. Did I tell you that I found it in the snow? I thought it must belong to the house.”

Aaron shook his head. “Not here,” he answered. “We never have any animals here, especially not cats.”

“Really?” Sybil said. “Don’t you like them, Mr. Lee? Or doesn’t the air suit them? Or do they all refuse to live in the country and want to get to London, to the theatres and the tubes? Are the animals also forsaking the countryside?”

He smiled, saying, “It isn’t a social law, Miss Coningsby, but it’s a rather curious fact. They — the cats we’ve had from time to time, for one reason or another — they spend all their time round my study door, miaowing to get into the room of the images.”

Ralph looked up; this was the first he had heard of a room with images.

“Dogs too,” Aaron went on, “they do the same thing. In fact, we’ve had a mighty business sometimes, getting them away — when we’ve had one. It’d snarl and bite and go almost mad with rage before it’d be taken back to its kennel. And there was a parrot Henry had when he was a boy — a cousin of mine gave it to him, a magnificent bird — Henry left the door of its cage unfastened by accident one night, and we found it the next morning dead. It had gone on dashing itself against the door of the room till it killed itself.”

There was a moment’s silence; then Ralph said: “Parrots are jolly useful things. I know a man — he’s at Scotland Yard, as a matter of fact, and he has to see all sorts of cranks and people who think other people are conspiring or fancy they’re on the track of dope-gangs . . . of course not the very silliest kind, but those that there just might be something in-well, he got so fed up that he had a parrot in his room, put it away in the window opposite his table so that it was at the back of anyone else, and he taught it, whenever he stroked his nose several times, to say ‘And what about last-Tuesday-week?’ It had an awfully sinister kind of croak in its voice, if you know what I mean, and he swore that about half his people just cleared out of the room without stopping to ask what it meant, and even most of those that didn’t were a bit nervy most of the rest of the time. He got a shock once though, because there was a fellow who’d lost a lot of money racing on the Tuesday week, and when he was reminded of it suddenly like that, he just leapt up and cursed for about twenty minutes straight off before getting down to his business again.”

“That,” said Sybil with conviction, “was an admirable idea. Simple, harmless, and apparently effective. What happened to the parrot, Ralph?”

“O, well, it got all out of hand and a bit above itself,” Ralph answered. “It kept on all the time asking ‘What about last Tuesday week?’ till my friend got sick of it. Especially after some fellow tried to do him in one Tuesday with a hammer. So he had to get rid of it. But he always thought it’d be a brainy notion for solicitors and business men and vicars and anybody who had a lot of callers.”

“Beautiful!” Sybil said. “The means perfectly adapted to the end — and no fuss. Would you jump, Mr. Lee, if someone asked you what you were doing last Tuesday week?”

“Alas, I am always leading the same life,” Aaron said. “There hasn’t been a day for years — until this Christmas — that I’ve had cause to remember more than any other. No, I shouldn’t jump.”

“And you, Ralph?” Sybil asked.

“Well — no,” Ralph said, “I should have just to think for a minute . . . I mean, in Scotland Yard and all. But — no, not after a second.”

“How innocent the old are,” Sybil said, smiling to Aaron. “I shouldn’t jump either.”

“No, but then you never do jump, do you, Aunt Sybil?” Ralph protested. “When that girl we had smashed a whole trayful of china in the hall, you just said, ‘O poor dear, how worried she’ll be,’ and dipped out there like a homing-pigeon.”

“Well, so she was worried,” Sybil answered. “Frightfully worried. But about your animals, Mr. Lee. What’s the explanation, do you think?”

Aaron shrugged delicately and moved his hands. “Who knows?” he answered. “It sounds fantastic to say the images draw them, but what other cause can there be? Some mesmeric power — in the balance, in the magnetic sympathies.”

“Magnetic sympathy over cats?” Sybil said, a little dubiously. “Cats never struck me like that. But you won’t let my kitten bang itself against the door, will you? Or not till we’ve tried to amuse it in other ways first.”

“I’ll see to its safety myself,” Aaron said. “I shall be looking in on Joanna, and I’ll either bring it away or warn her to keep it safe. She’ll treat it carefully enough, with her unfortunate delusions about Egypt. Isn’t Ra the Sun God shown in a cat’s form?”

“I haven’t an idea,” Sybil answered, smiling. “Perhaps the kitten is Ra, and I carried the Sun God home this afternoon. It doesn’t, if one might say so, seem exactly the Sun God’s best day.”

They listened to the blizzard for a minute or two; then Sybil looked at her watch. “I think, if you’ll pardon me, Mr. Lee,” she said, “I’ll just run and look in on my brother. He might be glad of a word.” The three of them rose together.

“Present my regrets again,” Aaron bowed. “It was an entirely unexpected accident and a most regrettable result.”

Sybil curtsied back. “Thank you so much,” she murmured. “Lothair will — or will not — think so. But I can’t altogether think so myself, if (you don’t mind me being frank?), if Henry did arrange for the storm.”

He stepped back, startled. “The storm,” he cried more loudly, “the storm’s only winter snow.”

“But is all winter snow the same storm?” she asked. “That is, if I’ve got it right. But isn’t it divinely lovely? Do excuse me; I must just see Lothair.” She turned and went.

“Aunt Sybil,” Ralph said in the pause after her departure, “would find a torture-chamber divinely lovely, so long as she was the one on the rack. Or a broken-down Ford. Or draughts. Or an anaconda.”

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