Mr. Coningsby had been lying in bed for some time, but he was not asleep. He was restless; his mind was restless. It was all very well, this going to bed, this being put to bed in case he got a bad cold, but — but — he had a continual vision of Sybil before his eyes. Sybil, he had rather dimly gathered, wasn’t in bed, and wasn’t in the least proposing to go: and if she was up, why was he where he was? Of course, it showed a very nice spirit, no more than he would have expected of the old man, who didn’t seem to know anything about Henry’s indescribable fatuous insolence in hoping, in rather more than hoping, even expecting, or something like it, that he should be given a set of cards which were part of the only memory he himself possessed of an old and dear friend, a friendship the value of which a young pigeon-stealer like Henry couldn’t possibly know; gipsies never made friends, or only of their own kind, vagrants and beggars, the kind of person Nancy had never met — though certainly the grandfather seemed different: probably the mother — the daughter — had run away, only the name was identical, so it must have been the father, but then the family would be the same — however, Aaron Lee was a very different kind of creature, and had behaved very properly. Still, though in the first shock of getting back he had allowed himself to be looked after and waited on and almost cosseted — still, the fact remained that after an hour or so of solitude he didn’t like the idea. He wasn’t so old that he couldn’t be out in a snowstorm and laugh at it. He did a kind of mocking laugh at the blizzard swirling about the curtained windows, to which the blizzard responded by making such a frantic attack on the house that Mr. Coningsby unintentionally abandoned his laughter and looked uneasily at the curtains. If the infernal thing broke the glass and burst in, a nice sight he’d look, dancing round the room and trying to get dressed in a hurry. He had a momentary glimpse of himself feeling for a stud on a snowy dressing-table and trying to fix a tie which continually, “torn but flying”, streamed away upon the wind. Really, there was a lot to be said for getting up. Besides, Sybil was up, and Sybil wasn’t a girl any longer, and, though he’d been out in the storm longer than she had, yet he was a man and he had been rather underlining his own active habits, in an only half-conscious comparison of himself with the rest. Aaron, Sybil — he supposed Nancy and Henry were up too — while he was tucked up with a hot-water bottle. A hot-water bottle! That was all that the young thought their parents wanted. “And when,” thought Mr. Coningsby, led on by the metaphor, “when they get into hot water, with their jumpings and their jazzings, and their nigger-minstrels and their night-clubs, who do they go to to get them out? To the old fellow tucked up with the bottle.” Nothing less likely than any appeal in a crisis by Nancy or Ralph to their father could well have been imagined, but that actual division was hidden from him in his view of the sentimental. They were all up — dining probably. No one so far had brought him any dinner: however, perhaps they weren’t dining yet. “I’m a fair-minded man,” Mr. Coningsby thought; “I dare say dinner’s a bit late. So much the better. I shall get up. If my sister can be about, so can I.”
The feeling under the last sentence was, in fact, not so simple as it seemed — and he knew it. There floated in his mind, though he avoided it, a horrible wonder whether in effect he had really saved Sybil quite as much as he thought. Lothair Coningsby was in many things fantastic, but he was not merely stupid. He never insisted on seeing facts wrongly, though he did a busy best to persuade the facts to arrange themselves according to his personal preference. But sometimes a fact refused — Nancy’s arrangement with Henry, Ralph’s determined departure for Christmas — and then there was nothing to do but to condole with himself over it or to look at it and send it away. The afternoon’s experience had been a fact of such a kind. He had meant to be saving Sybil, he had thought he was saving her, he had been very anxious about her, but now, in his warm comfort of repose, he couldn’t help seeing that she had been very active about it all; her voice had been very fresh, and she had . . . she certainly had . . . been gently singing to herself while they waited for the door to open. He himself had not been singing, but then he didn’t generally sing; he believed in opening his mouth at the proper times, and outside a shut door in a howling snowstorm wasn’t one of them. She’d come out to meet him — yes, of course; but which of them — O, good heavens, which of them — had really been thankful for the other’s presence? Perhaps it didn’t matter; perhaps they’d both been thankful? Reciprocal help. Sybil rather believed in reciprocity, so that all was right. So did he, only, in the way the world went, he always seemed having to be more reciprocal than anybody else. But this afternoon?
This was becoming intolerable. The wind banged at the window again and startled him into decision. He would get up. It was Christmas Day — by heaven, so it was! He had never spent Christmas evening in bed. He always took a good-natured part in any fun that there was. Fun perhaps was too much to expect in this house, but there’d be talk, no doubt, and perhaps — Aaron had hinted as much — a rather unusual wine; perhaps a little music or what not. Anyhow, what not or no what not, he wasn’t going to lie here like an abandoned log while the other logs were . . . well, were downstairs. Sybil should see that if she had helped him, it was only momentary: and if he’d helped her, then it was silly for her to be up and him not. And then, if the storm did burst his window, he’d be able to move to another room more easily. So any way and every way it was better to get up. Especially as everyone seemed to have forgotten him: his host, Henry, Nancy, Sybil — everyone. Well, he would go down: he wouldn’t complain, but if anyone expressed surprise he might just say a word —“O, well, lying by oneself —”; “Unless one’s really ill, one likes to see something of people —”; perhaps, even better, “I thought I’d rather be among you,” with just the faintest stress on the “among you”— not enough for them to treat him as an invalid, but just enough to cause a flicker of regret in Sybil’s and perhaps Aaron’s heart; he didn’t much expect to cause even a flicker in Nancy’s, and he rather hoped that Henry would be a little annoyed.
While he was dressing, he went on trying over various words to say. Every now and then the English language appeared to Mr. Coningsby almost incapable of expressing his more delicate shades of emotion. But then life — getting other people to understand exactly what you meant and wanted and thought and felt — was a very complex business, and, as he never wanted to push himself on others, he was usually satisfied if he could lightly indicate what he was feeling. One mustn’t be selfish — especially on Christmas Day. He abandoned a plaintive, “I thought perhaps you wouldn’t mind me coming down,” in favour of a jocund, “Ha, ha! Well, you see, I didn’t need much putting right. Ah, Sybil, you . . . your . . . you don’t . . . ” Rather peevishly he gave that up. He simply could not think of anything at all jocund to say to Sybil. He finished dressing and went to the door. His hand on it, he switched off the light, opened it, and stepped out. His room was near the top of the staircase, next to Aaron’s bedroom. The corridor into which he came ran to his right and left, at each end turning into a short concluding corridor. In the extreme corner to his right was the door of Aaron’s study, within which lay that curious inner room, exposed to the wind on almost all sides, where were the absurd little marionettes. He had been rather pleased when he used the word to Henry, and it recurred to him as he stared towards it. For, much to his surprise, he saw a small procession going stealthily along the corridor. It had only just passed his door when he opened it, quietly, as it happened, and had not heard him. Indeed, the tall young masculine back at which he found himself gazing was what had startled him. It wasn’t Henry; it wasn’t anybody’s that he knew. It was wearing a chauffeur’s outdoor coat, but as its arms stuck inches out beyond the sleeves and its neck rose high and thick over the collar it probably wasn’t the chauffeur. Besides the chauffeur wouldn’t be wandering about like that in his master’s house. Mr. Coningsby’s eyes passed it as he wondered, and lit on someone whom he vividly remembered. There, her eyes on the ground, a blanket clutched round her —“extraordinary dress!” the astonished and already indignant visitor thought — was the old madwoman they had encountered on their journey down. O, it was she undoubtedly: the tangled white hair brought that other evening back in full recognition, and the bent form, and the clutching hand holding the blanket round its neck. She was following something; her head was thrust forward and downwards. Mr. Coningsby instinctively leaned sideways and craned to see what it was, and saw, a yard or so in front of her, a kitten. He stared blankly, as the curious train went on — first the kitten, going gently, pausing now and then with a sudden kittenish crouch, then getting up and going on again, its head turning from side to side; and after it the old woman, with that amazing blanket; and after her the young man in the coat three sizes and more too small for him.
Mr. Coningsby’s flesh crept at the mere sight of them. Why a kitten? Why should even a mad old hag go so softly and carefully after a kitten? Perhaps it was her kitten and she was trying to catch it; she wasn’t hurrying it or hurrying after it; if it stopped, she stopped; when it went on, she went on. And so with the third member of the procession, who copied her in all things — moving or staying as she did. It was uncanny; it was rather horrible. His hand still on the door-handle, Mr. Coningsby for a few moments stood gaping after them.
Aaron presumably knew about it — but did he? This wretched woman had seemed to dislike Aaron; supposing he didn’t know! It didn’t seem very likely he’d let her meander round the house in a blanket after a kitten, nor a young ruffian covered only by a coat that didn’t fit him — not anyhow with Nancy and Sybil about. Sybil, it was true, had seemed to get on with them remarkably well, but even so . . . Suppose Nancy had met them . . . what on earth would a — for all her faults — ordinary nice young girl do? Suppose the old devil dropped the blanket by accident — or purposely? Mr. Coningsby revolted at the idea — revolted against the whole mad fact. He let go of the handle and said in a surprisingly firm voice, “Hallo, there!”
No one took the smallest notice of him. By now he couldn’t see the kitten, but the procession was nearing the end of the corridor. At least he ought to see where they went. It was possible that they’d been having baths or something, like himself — no, not like himself. The notion that he and the old woman had shared a bath, that they could have anything at all in common — even the very idea of a bath — was extraordinarily offensive. Besides, the kitten? The kitten might, from the way it was going, have been a maid showing a visitor to her room, but of course it wasn’t. Unless it was a new kind of marionette. If any kitten started to show him to his room —
Well, he was going after them, he was going to make quite certain that they didn’t run into Nancy. It’d be enough to give her a shock. And he wasn’t going to have Sybil kneeling down as if she were in church; she’d been to church once today already. Blessing, indeed! Mr. Coningsby went down the corridor after the others with a firm determination to allow no sort of blessing whatever within any reasonable distance of him while he was alive and sane. Except, of course, in a church.
They were outside the door of Aaron’s study; he heard the kitten mewing at it. Joanna — if that was her name — opened it. Mr. Coningsby called out again, quite loudly this time, “Hallo, you there!” But the “you there” took no notice; they were going in. Mr. Coningsby broke into a run and then checked — after all, his host might have given Joanna the use of the room. He considered the possibility and rejected it; Aaron had apparently had a quite different view of Joanna. No, there was some hanky-panky about.
An awful thought for a moment occurred to him that she might be merely going to let the kitten out into the garden or somewhere; people did let kittens out into gardens, and a nice fool he’d look if that were so. But surely on a night like this — and anyhow not on the first floor — and not into a study. He became shocked at himself; he was almost vulgar. Very much more angry, he reached the study door.
The others, including the kitten, were inside. As Mr. Coningsby came into the room he heard the mewing again, plaintive and insistent; he saw the little beast on its hind legs against the inner door — not that it was so little; it struck him that it was within an inch or so of being a proper cat, and the noise it was making was much louder than feline infancy produces. Joanna was almost beside it, but she had had to go round Aaron’s great table while the cat had dashed below it. And a little behind her, just turning the table-corner, was Stephen. Mr. Coningsby remembered that behind that other door were the images of gold. Those were what she was after, of course — gipsies — golden statues — theft. He said loudly, “Now then, now then, what are you doing there?”
She stopped, for this time she heard him, and looked over at him. Her eyes blinked at him from the tanned wrinkled old face under the matted hair, over the blanket fastened together (he now saw) by a strap round her. She said, “Keep away; you’re too late.”
“I fancy you’ll find I’m just in time,” Mr. Coningsby answered, and walked into the room, going round the table on the opposite side to Stephen. “Does Mr. Lee know you’re here?”
She chuckled unpleasantly, then nodded at him. “He’ll know,” she said, “he’ll soon know. Wait till I bring him out.”
“Out?” Mr. Coningsby said. “What do you mean — out?”
She pointed to the door, and her voice sank to a whisper as she said, “What he has there.”
“What he has there,” Mr. Coningsby said, “is his business. I thought that was what you were after, and it’s a good thing for you I happened to be about. I suppose you were going to rob him? Well, you won’t this time. Now you get away, and take your damned kitten with you — if it is yours.”
She clutched the handle of the door and began to speak, but Mr. Coningsby, in the full tide of satisfaction, swept on.
“Leave go of that door. Come on; we’ll go downstairs together. A nice piece of work, upon my word! You ought to know better, at your age.”
The cat yowled at the door. Joanna glowered, and then said, “You’ll stop me finding my baby?”
“Your what?” Mr. Coningsby exclaimed. “O, don’t be silly; there’s no baby there. There’s only a set of marionettes — pretty things, but nothing like a baby. And don’t try and put me off with that kind of talk. Get you away.”
“Ah! ah!” the old creature cried out with extraordinary force, “you’re one of them, you’re one of the sons of Set.”
The cat yowled louder than ever. For a moment Mr. Coningsby felt strangely alone, as the sound went through the room, and he heard and saw the claws tearing at the door. He thought of that continuous movement behind it; he saw the straining beast and the snarling woman; he saw the dull face of the idiot behind her; he heard the noise of the storm without — and he wished very much that someone else was by his side. There was something wrong about the images, the house, the very wind; cat and storm howled together, and the old woman suddenly shrieked, “He’s over you, he’s over you. Get away before he strikes. All his enemies are close to death. The cats are up; the god’s coming.”
“Nothing is over me,” Mr. Coningsby said in a voice that became high and shrill in spite of himself. “Let that door alone.”
“It isn’t you that’ll stop it,” she screeched back, “nor a million like you. They’ll take you and cut you in a thousand pieces, they’ll embalm you alive in the pyramids of hell, they’ll drown you among the crocodiles that are tearing your father, they’ll flay you with the burning knives of Anubis, and your heart shall be eaten in the place of justice.” She turned towards the door and turned the handle. Mr. Coningsby was on her in a moment, pressing it shut, and incidentally kicking the cat away. As he jumped he almost wished that he’d left her alone; it was all horrible, and he loathed the old voice screaming curses at him. It was of course absolute nonsense, but some minute atom of his mind dragged on the words “embalmed alive”. Embalmed alive — he of all people!
“No, you don’t!” he said. “Leave the door alone. Ah! ow!”
The cat had leapt back at him and was madly clawing at his legs. Mr. Coningsby kicked at it and missed. It hung on to his trousers, then it fell off and flung itself at his ankles. It was in a state of raging lunacy, almost as wild as Joanna, who dropped the blanket so that it fell back from her shoulders, and herself clutched at him with clawing fingers. Mr. Coningsby avoided her, kicked again at the cat, and desperately held on to the door. But he was suddenly torn from it. Joanna, as she clawed at his throat, had shrieked out a call to her companion, and Stephen, leaping past her, caught Coningsby round the waist, and with a great heave wrenched him away from the door and held him high in the air. Head and feet downwards, he hung, jerking, kicking, choking out anathemas.
“What shall I do with him, grandmother?” Stephen said. “Shall I throw him out into the storm?”
The old woman turned her eyes to the window, but, alert in hatred, saw that it was too small; to push a struggling full sized body through it would not easily be done even by Stephen. “Throw him there,” she said, pointing across the room, and at once Stephen obeyed. Mr. Coningsby was sent hurtling through the air into the extreme corner of the room, where he hit the walls first and then crashed to the floor. By mere chance his head escaped; he fell bruised, shocked, and dazed, but still in some sort of consciousness. For one fratricidal second fear and pride warred in his heart, and pride won. He lay for some minutes where he had been flung, till rage so bubbled in him that he began painfully to wriggle over, obstinately determined to see what those creatures were doing. He could not see, for the inner door was open and they had disappeared. They were busy then — he had been right — about the golden images; robbery — robbery with violence. A long, long, long sentence for Stephen, and Joanna — Mr. Coningsby’s professional knowledge supplied him with a clear view of Joanna’s future. But that couldn’t happen if they got away, and unless he did something they might get away. He was too confused by his fall to think of the extreme unlikelihood of Joanna’s going out into the storm clothed only in a blanket, and carrying in a fold of it a collection of little golden figures; had he thought of it he would have believed Joanna capable of it, and perhaps he would have been right. For when she stood on the threshold of that inner room and peered into the cloud that filled it, when she beheld the rich mystery that enveloped the symbols of our origins, she had cried out once upon the name of the god, and from that moment she lost touch with the actualities of this world. She pressed on: Stephen behind her, made violent movements and noises as if to hold her back, but over her shoulder she turned on him a face of such destructive malignity that he shrank back, and crouched defensively down by the door, only whispering from there, “Don’t go, don’t go.”
All this was hidden from Mr. Coningsby, who, with a growing determination to stop it, was getting, slowly and gruntingly, to his feet. “Fortunate,” he thought as he did so, “fortunate I brought my other glasses with me! Losing one pair in the storm — shouldn’t have seen anything of this — didn’t someone say Ralph had called? Get hold of Ralph — not always thoughtful — couldn’t stand seeing his father thrown about the room, like a . . . like a quoit. Just as well he didn’t see — soon settle this nonsense. Ugh! What’s that?”
As he came finally to his feet, and adjusted the extra pair of glasses, the gold chain of which had kept them attached if not in position, he saw the first wraiths of mist faintly exuding from the inner room. “What the devil is it?” he thought, staring. “‘Tisn’t snow; ‘tisn’t smoke . . . or is it? Has that infernal old woman set the place on fire?” He went forward a little, keeping the big table between himself and the other door, just in case Joanna and Stephen dashed out at him again, and then he saw the whole doorway filling with it. He had an impression that there were a great many people before his eyes, a crowd of them, just there in the doorway, but that could hardly be so, unless of course other wanderers had taken refuge in this house from the storm, but then they wouldn’t be here, they’d be in the kitchen or somewhere. It wasn’t people; it was mist or smoke or something. He remembered suddenly that such a faint vapour had seemed to enwrap Nancy and the table when she had her fortune told, but he hadn’t taken much notice, because he had then been, as ostentatiously as possible, looking another way. If the old woman was asking about her fortune, Mr. Coningsby felt he could tell her exactly what it would be, only she wasn’t there to be told. Nothing was there but the cloud and . . . again . . . an indefinable sensation of lots of people, all moving and turning.
“It’s those damned figures,” Mr. Coningsby thought. “I expect they shake everything, all that gyrating nonsense. Good God, it’s getting thicker.” He turned, ran through the outer door, and shouted as loudly as he could, “Fire! Fire!”
As he opened his mouth for the third shout, he stopped on the “I-”. For there came from below a sudden crash, a crash that was answered from different parts of the house by a noise of smashing and splintering, and then the wind was howling louder and nearer than before. “Great Christ!” Mr. Coningsby cried out, in mere ingenuity of perplexed anxiety, “what the devil’s that?” He had guessed even as he spoke; the doors and windows were giving way before the blizzard. “The snow’s getting in and the fire’s getting out,” he thought, distractedly staring back over his shoulder. “O, my Father in heaven, what a Christmas!”
Downstairs, Aaron and Ralph were still gazing at one another in the dining-room when the crash came. At the noise of it they both exclaimed, but Ralph was the first in the hall. He saw there how the front door had given way under the tireless assaults of the storm, which, as if imbued with a conscious knowledge of its aim, had been driving like a battering-ram at the house since the return of Sybil and her brother. It might have been pursuing and hunting him down; the loosened leaves of invocation might have been infused — beyond any intention — with Henry’s purpose, and the vague shapes whom Lothair Coningsby had thought he saw in the snow-swept roads might have been hammering with a more terrible intensity at the door which had closed behind him. At last those crashing buffets had torn lock and bolt from the doorpost; the door was flung back, and the invading masses of snow and wind swept in. The floor of the hall was covered before anyone could speak; the wind — if it were not rather the dance of searching shapes — swept into every corner. A picture or two on the walls were torn off and flung down lest they concealed the fugitive; tables were tossed about; an umbrella-stand was kicked to the extreme end of the hall. A howl of disappointment went up, and the snow drove over the first few stairs, as if the pursuit was determined never to stop until its prey had been discovered.
Ralph gaped for a moment, then plunged for the door. “Come on!” he yelled. “Call everyone! Come and shut it.” He pulled it a little forward and was thrown back again along with it. “Come on!” he cried stentorianly to Aaron. “No time to waste! Call the others!”
But Aaron was stupefied. The comfortable reassurances in which he had clothed himself were torn away by the same giant hands that were wrecking his house. This was no unexpected winter storm, but supernaturally contrived death, and, whatever scope it had, this place was its centre. If it were to sweep, eschatological and ultimate, over the world, that destruction was but an accident. The elementals, summoned from their symbols, were still half-obedient to the will that had called them. His brain called to him to give them their desire, to take the stranger and throw him out beyond the threshold, that he might there be beaten and stunned and crushed and stifled and buried, a sacrifice now not to magical knowledge but to the very hope of life. And again his brain answered and told him that he could not, that the storm itself had brought to the stranger a friend and to himself two enemies. There was no one in the house but Henry who would do his bidding, and even if Henry could be found in the darkness where he had hidden himself, what could he and Henry do against Coningsby and his son? A more sinister thought leapt in his mind — what if Henry himself could be made the offering? Might not these raging powers be satisfied with the body of the sorcerer who had invoked them? Might not Coningsby and his son and he himself manage to make that offering? At least then Aaron Lee would be alive, and now nothing in the whole universe mattered but the safety of Aaron Lee. He looked wildly round, and then Ralph left the door and ran back to him, seizing his arm, and crying, “Call someone! We’ve got to shut the door and barricade it — then the windows! Hallo, everybody! Hallo! Come here! You’re wanted! Come here everyone!”
The servants — which meant two maids and the cook — had come already, bursting into the hall from their own quarters, and screaming that the back doors were broken down. One of the maids was hysterical with the continued roar of the blizzard, and was screaming and howling continuously. The other, almost equally alarmed, was quieter, and it was on her that Ralph fixed.
“Hallo!” he said, “Come along! Look here, we’ve got to try and get the door held. We’ll get a good big table and barge it to with that behind it, and someone else can get some rope or something. The dining-room table’s best, don’t you think? It’s the biggest thing I’ve seen.” He had her by the arm and was rushing her to the dining-room. “O lor’, won’t anything keep that gramophoning misery behind us quiet? No, don’t go back, for God’s sake. Here — now smash everything off it — that’s right! O, don’t stop to pick them up, girl — what’s your name? what? Amabel? — all right, Amabel, just pitch them off, so! Now this way — that’s it! careful! careful! blast that leg! — sideways, I think — so; yes, so — gently; don’t get flustered. Hark at the polish!” as the table-top screeched against the doorpost. They tottered out with it.
“Can I help, Ralph?” his aunt’s voice said behind him. Sybil had been half-upstairs when the door had given way, and she had come quickly back to the hall, but her arrival had been unnoticed in the feminine rush that had preceded it.
“Hallo!” said Ralph breathlessly, as they fought to get the table long side on to the storm; it was only the accident of a recess that had enabled them to get it out of the dining-room at all, and at the moment it was being driven steadily towards the stairs, with Ralph and Amabel holding on to it at each end, like the two victims who were dragged prisoners to the power of Set in the Tarot paintings. Sybil caught Amabel’s end, and her extra weight brought the other round; Ralph was suddenly spun round in a quarter of a circle, and then they were all pushing towards the door. Ralph, over his shoulder, yelled at Aaron, the cook, and the hysterical maid, “Cord! Miles of cord!”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to close the door first, Ralph?” Sybil said, looking back at him.
“Be better,” Ralph said, “but easier? You try it.”
Sybil looked at Amabel. “Can you hold it?” she said. “I think if we shut the wind out first . . . ” She let go of the table, went down the hall, took hold of the door, and pushed it gradually shut. “There,” she said, “that’s what I meant. Don’t you think that’s simpler, Ralph?”
“Much,” said Ralph, a little astonished either at his aunt’s suggestion or at her expert dealing with the door, he wasn’t sure which: but he assumed there must have been a momentary lull. He and Amabel rushed the heavy table up, and were just setting it with its broad top against the door as Ralph said, “Now we’ve only got to fix —” when another voice joined in. From high above them —“Fire!” called Mr. Coningsby. “Fire!”
The hall broke into chaos. Amabel, startled, let go her end of the table, which crashed to the ground only an inch from Sybil’s foot. The hysterical maid broke into a noise like a whole zoological garden at once. The cook, who had been going steadily, and rather heavily, towards the stairs, stopped, turned to Aaron, and said, “Mr. Lee, sir, did you hear that?” Aaron ran to the stairs, and, checking at the bottom, cried out some incoherent question. Ralph said, in a penetrating shout: “What? What?” then in a much quieter voice he added, “Well, if it’s fire, it’s not much use barricading the door, is it? Look here, let’s wedge it with that chair just for a moment till —”
“Fire!” Mr. Coningsby called out again.
“Go and see, Ralph,” Sybil said. “It may be a mistake.”
“Probably is,” Ralph answered. “Right ho, but let’s just push that chair in here. Amabel bright-eyes, give it over here, will you? and then go and smother that fog-horn. There, so; another shove, aunt; so!”
Somehow the table and the heavy hall chair were wedged across the door. Ralph, letting go, looked at his barricade doubtfully. “It won’t hold for more than a second,” he said, “but — I’ll pop up and see what’s biting him now. If there’s really anything, I’ll tell you.”
He shot off, and, overtaking Aaron half up the stairs, arrived with him on the landing where his father was restlessly awaiting them.
“It’s that old woman,” Mr. Coningsby broke out at once to Aaron. “She’s got into your private room, where the marionettes are, and there’s a lot of smoke coming out. I don’t suppose she’s done much damage yet, but you’d better stop her. Come on, Ralph my boy, we may need you; there’s a nasty violent ruffian with her, and I’m not strong enough to tackle him alone.”
As they ran down the corridor, Ralph heard another splintering crash from one of the rooms. “Window!” he thought. “This is looking nasty! Lord send it isn’t a fire! Eh?”
The last syllable was a bewildered question. They had reached the door of Aaron’s room, and there the strange apparition billowed — the golden mist swirled and surged before them. Its movement was not rapid, but it had already completely hidden from their sight the opposite wall, with its inner door, and was rolling gently over the large writing-table. It was exquisitely beautiful, and, though Ralph’s first thought was that it certainly wasn’t smoke, he couldn’t think what it really was. He gaped at it; then he heard Aaron at his side give a piteous little squeal of despair. His father at the same time said, “I can’t think why she doesn’t come out. It’s such a funny colour.”
“Well,” Ralph said, “no good staring at it, is it? Look here, this is more important than the door; we’d better have a line of people to the — damn it, father, it can’t be smoke!”
Mr. Coningsby only said, “Then what is it?”
“Well, if she’s inside,” Ralph exclaimed, “I’m going in too. Look here, Mr. Lee . . . ”
But Aaron was past speech or attention. He was staring in a paralysed horror, giving little moans, and occasionally putting up his hands as if to ward off the approaching cloud. From within and from without the dangers surrounded him, and Henry was nowhere about, and he was alone. Within that cloud was Joanna — Joanna alone with the golden images of the dance, Joanna who thought he had kept them from her, who knew herself for the Mother of a mystical vengeance, who went calling day and night on her Divine Son to restore the unity of the god. What was happening? What was coming on him? What threat and fulfilment of threat was at hand?
Ralph thought, “The poor old chap’s thoroughly upset; no wonder — it’s a hectic day,” and went forward, turning to go round the table.
“Take care, my boy,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I’ll come with you — I don’t think it can be fire. Only then — What’s the matter?”
Ralph, with an expression of increasing amazement, was moving his arms and legs about in front of the mist, rather as if he were posturing for a dance in front of a mirror. He said in a puzzled tone, “I can’t get through. It’s too thick.”
“Don’t be absurd,” his father said. “It’s quite obviously not thick. It’s hardly more than a thin veil — of sorts.” He added the last two words because, as the rolling wonder approached them, it seemed here and there to open into vast depths of itself. Abysses and mountainous heights revealed themselves — masses of clouds were sweeping up. “Veil” perhaps was hardly the word.
Ralph was being driven back before it; he tried to force his hand through it, and he seemed to be feeling a thick treacle — only it wasn’t sticky. It wasn’t unpleasant; only it was unpierceable. He gave way a step or two more. “Damned if I understand it,” he said.
Mr. Coningsby put up his own hand rather gingerly. He stretched it out — farther; it seemed to touch the mist, but he felt nothing. Farther; he couldn’t see his hand or his wrist, still he felt something. Farther, something that felt exactly like another hand took hold of his lightly. He exclaimed, jerked his hand away, and sprang back. “What was that?” he said sharply.
Aaron was watching with growing horror the steady approach of the mist. But it was not merely the approach that troubled him; it was the change in it. The cloud was taking on form — he could not at first distinguish what the form was, and then at one point he suddenly realized he was looking at a moving hand, blocked out of the golden mist, working at something. It was the size of an ordinary man’s hand, and then, while he looked, he missed it somehow, as a stain on a wall will be one minute a cat’s head and the next but an irregular mark. But as he lifted his eyes he saw another — more like a slender woman’s hand — from the wrist grasping upward at . . . at yet another hand that reached downward to it; and then those joining fingers had twisted together and became yet a third that moved up and down as if hammering, and as it moved, was covered and hidden by the back of a fourth. His gaze swept the gathering cloud; everywhere it was made up of hands, whose shape was formed by it, and yet it was not the mist that formed them, for they were the mist. Everywhere those restless hands billowed forward; of all sizes, in all manner of movement, clasping, holding, striking, fighting, smoothing, climbing, thrusting out, drawing back, joining and disjoining, heaving upward, dragging down, appearing and disappearing, a curtain of activity falling over other activity, hands, and everywhere hands. Here and there the golden shimmer dulled into tints of ordinary flesh, then that was lost again, and the aureate splendour everywhere shone. The hands were working in the stuff, yet the stuff which they wrought was also hands, so that their purpose was foiled and thwarted and the workers became a part of that which was worked upon. Over and below and about the table the swelling and sinking curtain of mystery swept — if it were not rather through it, for it did not seem to divide or separate the movement, and the cloud seemed to break from it on the side nearest Aaron, just as it filled all the air around. The room was hidden behind it, nearer and nearer to the door it came, and the three were driven back before it.
Or, rather, Ralph and his father were. Aaron had not moved from the doorway, and now, as he understood the composition of that mist, he cried out in terror. “It’s alive!” he shrieked, “It’s alive! It’s the living cloud! Run, run!” and himself turned and went pattering as fast as he could towards the stairs, sending out an agonized call to Henry as he fled. The cloud of the beginning of things was upon him; in a desperate effort to escape he rushed down the staircase towards the hall. But his limbs were failing him; he went down half a dozen steps and clung to the balustrade, pale, trembling, and overwhelmed.
Mr. Coningsby looked after him, looked back at the mist, which had now almost filled the room, retreated a little farther, and said to Ralph, with more doubt than usual in his voice, “Living cloud? D’you see anything living about it?”
“Damn sight too solid,” Ralph said, “at least it’s not quite that either — it’s more like . . . mortar or thick custard or something. Where does it come from?”
On the point of answering, Mr. Coningsby was again distracted. There was a noise of scampering from within the mist, and out of it suddenly dashed the kitten, or cat, or whatever it was, which tore between them and half-way down the corridor, where it stopped abruptly, looked all round it, mewed wildly, tore back, and hurled itself into the cloud. Before either Mr. Coningsby or Ralph could utter a word, it shot out again more frenziedly than before, and this time rushed to the head of the stairs, where it broke into a fit of mad miauling, ran, jumped, or fell half down them past the step where Aaron clung, and in full sight of the front door crouched for the spring.
Sybil had been doing her best to soothe the hysterical maid, not without some result. Her back being to the stairs, she did not at first see what was happening there, though she heard — as everyone in the house did — the cries of Aaron and the yowling of the cat. She gave the maid a last word of tender encouragement, a last pat of heartening sympathy, and swung round. As she did so, the cat and Aaron both moved. The cat took one terrific leap from the stairs right across the hall, landed on Ralph’s barricade, dropped on to the floor, slithered, snarled, and began scratching at the table. Aaron at the same time took another step or two down, slipped, lost his footing, and crashed down. Sybil ran to him. “O, my dear,” she cried, but he answered her frantically, “My feet won’t take me away. They won’t let me escape.”
“Are you hurt?” she asked, and would have helped him up, but he shook his head, moaning, “My ankle, my ankle.” She kneeled to look at it, soothing him a little, even then, by the mere presence of unterrified and dominating serenity. Equanimity in her was not a compromise but a union, and the elements of that union, which existed separately in others, in her recognized themselves, and something other than themselves, which satisfied them. That round which her brother, exasperated and comforted at once, was always prowling; that to which Nancy had instinctively turned for instruction; that which Henry had seen towering afar over his own urgencies and desires — that made itself felt by Aaron now. In the same moment, by chance a silence fell in the house; the wind sank without, and all things seemed about to be ordered in calm. It was but for a moment. There was, for that second, peace; then again the cat howled by the door, and, as if in answer to the summons, the blizzard struck at it again, and the feeble barriers gave. The chair and table were tossed aside, the door was flung back, the snow poured again into the house, this time with double strength. It swept through the hall; it drove up the stairs; in its vanguard the cat also raced back. And from above, itself rushing forward with increased speed, the cloud of the mysteries drove down to meet it. The two powers intermingled — golden mist with wind and snow; the flakes were aureoled, the mist was whitened. Confusion filled the house; the mortal lives that moved in it were separated each from the rest, and each, blinded and stumbling, ran for what shelter, of whatever kind, it thought it could find. Voices sounded in cries of terror and despair and anger; and the yowling of the cat and the yelling of the storm overbore them; and another sound, the music of the room of the images — but now grown high and loud and passionate — dominated and united all. Dancing feet went by; golden hands were stretched out and withdrawn. The invasion of the Tarots was fulfilled.
Only Sybil, contemplating Aaron’s swelling ankle, said, “I think, Mr. Lee, if you could manage to hobble up just these few stairs to a room somewhere, perhaps we could deal with it better.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02