The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Two

The Hermit

An old man was sitting alone in a small room. He was at a table facing the door; behind him was another door. The walls were bare of pictures; the table was a large one, and it was almost completely covered with a set of Tarot cards. The old man was moving them very carefully from place to place, making little notes on a sheet of paper, and sometimes consulting an old manuscript book that lay by him. He was so absorbed that he did not hear the step outside, and it was not till the door opened that he looked up with a sudden exclamation. Henry Lee came lightly into the room.

“Why, Henry!” the old man said. Henry looked at the table, let his eyes run over the whole arrangement of the cards, and smiled.

“Still no nearer, grandfather?” he asked.

“Nearer? No, no, not nearer yet,” his grandfather answered. “Not quite, yet awhile. But I shall do it.” He sighed a little. “I keep the account very carefully,” he said, “and some day I shall do it. I spend all my time on it.”

Henry nodded towards the other door. “And — they?” he asked, lowering his voice a trifle.

“Yes,” the old man said. “I watch them too. But, you know — it’s too difficult. But I must do it at last. You’re not . . . you’re not coming back to help me, are you?”

“Why, I may even do that,” Henry said, taking off his motoring-coat.

Aaron Lee got to his feet. He was certainly very old — nearly a century, one might think, looking at the small wizened figure, dark-skinned and bald; but his movements, though slow, were not uncertain: his hands were steady as he leaned on the table, and if his voice shook a little, it was with excitement and not from senility.

“What do you mean, Henry?” he asked. “Have you found out anything? What have you heard? Have you — have you the secret?”

Henry sat down on the edge of the table, and idly fingered one of the cards. “Don’t believe me too much,” he said. “I don’t believe myself. I don’t know about the secret — no, I think we still have to find that out. But I think”— he dropped the card and looked burningly at his grandfather —“I think I have found the originals.”

Aaron gave a short gasp. “It’s not possible,” he began, and fell into a fit of trembling so great that he dropped again into his chair. When to a degree it had passed, he said once more, “It’s not possible.”

“You think not?” the younger man asked.

“Tell me,” Aaron exclaimed, leaning forward, “what are they? Why do you believe — how can you — that —” His voice stopped, so anxious was he, but after a moment’s pause he added —“Tell me; tell me.”

“It is so unlikely,” Henry began, “and yet with them there is nothing either likely or unlikely, is there? One cannot tell how they will move tomorrow. Tell me first, grandfather, do you still watch my future every day?”

“Every day by the cards,” Aaron said.

“And did yesterday promise nothing for today?” the young man asked.

“Nothing that I thought important,” Aaron answered. “Something was to come to you, some piece of good luck; the ace of cups lay on the Wheel of Fortune — but I thought it had to do with your law. I put it by to ask you about when you came.”

“You are old, grandfather,” Henry said. “Are the cups only deniers for you to think so?”

“But what could I think?” Aaron protested. “It was a day’s chance — I couldn’t — But what is it? What have you found?”

“I have told you I am betrothed,” Henry went on, using the solemn word as if deliberately, “and her father has had left him — by a friend of his who is dead — a collection of playing-cards . . . O, the usual thing, except for a set of the symbols. He showed them to us and I tell you, grandfather, I think it is the very one original set. I’ve come here to-night to see.”

“Have you got them?” the old one asked eagerly, but Henry shook his head.

“Time enough,” he said. “Listen, among them is not the Chariot an Egyptian car, devised with two sphinxes, driven by a Greek, and having on it paintings of cities and islands?”

“It is just that,” the other said.

“And Death — is not Death a naked peasant, with a knife in his hand, with his sandals slung at his side?”

“It is so,” the other said again.

“Certainly then they are the same,” Henry concluded. “But let us look at them, for that’s why I have come.”

The old man got up, and took from an inner pocket of his coat a key. He walked slowly to the inner door, and Henry followed him. He put the key in the lock, turned it, and opened the door. Within the room they were on the point of entering, and directly before them, there hung from ceiling to floor thick black curtains, and for a moment, as he laid his hand on one of these, the old man hesitated. Then he half pulled it aside, half lifted it, and went through, holding it so that his grandson might enter after him.

The place into which they came was smaller than the outer room. It was hung all round with a heavy black stuff, and it was filled with a curious pale light, which certainly did not come through any window or other opening. The colour of that pale light was uncertain; it seemed to change softly from one hue to another — now it was red, as if it were the reflection of a very distant fire; now it was green, as if diffused through invisible waters that covered them; now it was darker and half obscured by vapour; now those vapours were dispelled and the clear pallor of early dawn exhibited itself within the room. To this changing phenomenon of light the two men paid no attention; they were gazing at a table which stood in the centre.

It was a table made of some strange kind of wood: so much could be seen from the single central support which opened at the bottom into four foot-pieces, and each of these again into some twelve or fourteen claws, upon the whole fifty-six of which the table rested. But the top was hidden, for it was covered by a plate of what looked like gold, marked very intricately with a pattern, or perhaps with two patterns, one of squares, and one of circles, so that the eyes, as with a chessboard, saw now one and now the other as predominant. Upon that plate of gold were a number of little figures, each about three inches high, also of gold, it seemed, very wonderfully wrought; so that the likeness to the chess-board was even more pronounced, for to any hasty spectator (could such a one ever have penetrated there) the figures might have seemed like those in a game; only there were many of them, and they were all in movement. Gently and continuously they went, immingling, unresting — as if to some complicated measure, and as if of their own volition. There must have been nearly a hundred of them, and from the golden plate upon which they went came a slight sound of music — more like an echo than a sound — sometimes quickening, sometimes slowing, to which the golden figures kept a duteous rhythm, or perhaps the faint sound itself was but their harmonized movement upon their field.

Henry took a few steps forward, slowly and softly, almost as if he were afraid that those small images would overhear him, and softly and slowly Aaron followed. They paused at a little distance from the table, and stood gazing at the figures, the young man in a careful comparison of them with his memory of the newly found cards. He saw among them those who bore the coins, and those who held swords or staffs or cups; and among those he searched for the shapes of the Greater Trumps, and one by one his eyes found them, but each separately, so that as he fastened his attention on one the rest faded around it to a golden blur. But there they were, in exact presentation — the juggler who danced continuously round the edge of the circle, tossing little balls up and catching them again; the Emperor and Empress; the masculine and feminine hierophants; the old anchorite treading his measure and the hand-clasped lovers wheeling in theirs; a Sphinx-drawn chariot moving in a dancing guard of the four lesser orders; an image closing the mouth of a lion, and another bearing a cup closed by its hand, and another with scales but with unbandaged eyes — which had been numbered in the paintings under the titles of strength and temperance and justice; the wheel of fortune turning between two blinded shapes who bore it; two other shapes who bore between them a pole or cross on which hung by his foot the image of a man; the swift ubiquitous form of a sickle-armed Death; a horned mystery bestriding two chained victims; a tower that rose and fell into pieces, and then was rearisen in some new place; and the woman who wore a crown of stars, and the twin beasts who had each of them on their heads a crescent moon, and the twin children on whose brows were two rayed suns in glory — the star, the moon, the sun; the heavenly form of judgement who danced with a skeleton half freed from its graveclothes, and held a trumpet to its lips; and the single figure who leapt in a rapture and was named the world. One by one Henry recognized them and named them to himself, and all the while the tangled measure went swiftly on. After a few minutes he looked round: “They’re certainly the same; in every detail they’re the same. Some of the attributed meanings aren’t here, of course, but that’s all.”

“Even to that?” Aaron asked in a low voice, and pointed to the Fool in the middle of the field.

It was still: it alone in the middle of all that curious dance did not move, though it stood as if poised for running; the lynx or other great cat by its side was motionless also. They paused — the man and the beast — as if struck into inactivity in the very midst of activity. And all about them, sliding, stepping, leaping, rolling, the complex dance went on.

“That certainly,” Henry said, turning slowly away.

The old man took a step to meet him. “But then,” he whispered, so that his faint voice blended with the faint music, “but then we can find out — at any moment — what the dance says? We can tell what the future will be-from what the present is?”

Henry spread out his hands towards the table, as if he were laying something down. “That could be done, I suppose,” he answered. “But if the Fool does not move, how will it affect divination? Don’t your books tell you anything?”

“There are no writings which tell us anything at all of the Fool,” Aaron said.

They stood still for what might have been two or three minutes, watching that unresting movement, hearing that unceasing sound, themselves changed from moment to moment in that altering light; then Aaron said, “Come away now. I don’t like to watch too long, unless I am working at the order of the dance.”

Henry stood for a moment longer. “I wonder if you can know the dance without being among the dancers,” he said.

“But we are,” the old man answered hurriedly; “we are — everything is.”

“O, as everything is,” Henry uttered scornfully, “as stones or winds or ships. But stones and winds and ships don’t know. And to know —” He fell silent, and stood meditating till the other pulled at his arm; then, a little reluctantly, he turned to withdraw, and between the curtains and through the doorway they came into the outer room. Aaron locked the door and went back to his seat at the table, whence he looked inquiringly at his grandson.

“What will you do now about the cards?” he asked.

Henry came back from his secret thoughts with an abrupt movement of his body, and smiled, though his eyes remained brilliant and sombre. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Remember, I’ve only just seen them.”

“This owner, this father — will he sell them?” Aaron asked.

Henry played a tune on the table. “If he doesn’t,” he answered slowly, “I don’t know quite how . . . He is supposed, at his death — or before, perhaps — to give them to the British Museum. All of them.”

“What?” Aaron cried out in something like terror. “But that’s imbecile. Surely he’d sell — if we offered him enough?”

Henry shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “He’s a man who’s got pretty well everything he wants and finds it entirely useless to him. He doesn’t need money at all badly. He can think of nothing that will give him pleasure, and because of that he doesn’t like other people to have too much pleasure. No, he isn’t cruel; he’s even kind in his own way. But he holds on to his own as a child does to a broken toy — because one day it might want it or because it doesn’t like to see another child playing with what was once its own.”

“But money?” Aaron urged.

“I tell you he doesn’t want money,” Henry said.

“Wouldn’t he give it to his daughter?” Aaron asked more hopefully. “Are you going to marry her?”

“He can’t easily give her one pack out of the whole collection, and the rest to the Museum,” Henry answered. “Yes — I shall marry her. I think perhaps — but that doesn’t matter. But if he gives her the whole lot he will be bothered by his friend’s wish; and if he gives her one pack he will be bothered by the explanations; and if he leaves it all to the Museum he will be bothered by losing it.”

“But how will he lose it — if he keeps it while he’s alive?” the old man asked.

“I think he’s already unhappy, even while he’s alive, at the idea of losing at his death so much that he could never enjoy,” Henry said. “He is for ever waiting for satisfaction.”

Aaron Lee leaned forward. “But it’s necessary that he should sell it or give it — or lose it somehow,” he said anxiously.

“It would be very difficult for him to lose it,” the other answered. “And how do you know what virtue might pass from the cards?”

“Only violence . . . that’s unwise,” Aaron answered. “But to take them . . . to take them for this purpose . . . I don’t see the wrong.”

“Mr. Lothair Coningsby would see the wrong,” Henry said drily. “And I doubt if I could persuade Nancy.”

“What’s she to do with it?” his grandfather asked contemptuously.

Henry smiled again, a bright but almost threatening flash of amusement. “I wonder,” he said. “But, whatever I wonder, be certain, grandfather, that I’m determined not to go against her till . . . ”

He stopped for so long that Aaron said, “Till — till when?”

“Till I’ve seen whether the image of the Lovers has another use,” Henry finished. “To know — to see from within — to be aware of the dance. Well, we shall see.” His eyes fixed on the inner door, he added slowly, “Nancy — Nancy — Nancy.”

Aaron said: “But you must do something soon. We can’t run any risk. An accident —”

“Or a spasm of gloom,” Henry added, “and the cards would be in the Museum. Yes, you’re right; we can’t wait. By the way, do you ever see anything of Joanna?”

“I haven’t seen her for months,” the old man answered, with a slight shudder. “She came here in the summer — I told you.”

“I know you did,” Henry said. “Is she still as mad as ever? Is she still crying out on the names of the old dead gods?”

The other moved uneasily. “Don’t let’s talk of it. I am afraid of Joanna.”

“Afraid of her?” Henry said scornfully. “Why, what can she do to harm us?”

“Joanna’s mad, with a terrifying madness,” Aaron said. “If she knows that the Tarots might be brought back to their originals and the working of the mystery be complete —”

“What could an old woman and an idiot boy do?” Henry asked.

“Call them an insane prophetess and a young obedient Samson,” Aaron answered. “I dream of her sometimes as if she belonged to them. If she thought the body of her child was found and formed and vivified . . . and if she knew of the cards, she might . . . A mad hierophant . . . a hieratic hate . . . ”

“Mightn’t she be appeased if she thought her child was found?” Henry asked.

“If she thought that we kept it from her?” the old man said. “Ask your own blood, Henry, what your desire would do. Your spirit is more like hers than mine. When she and I were young together, I set myself to discover the prophetic meaning of the dance, but she imagined herself a partner in it, and she studied the old tales and myths of Egypt — thirty years she studied them, and her child was to be a Mighty One born within the measure. It was born, and the same day it died —”

Henry interrupted him sharply. “You’ve never told me this,” he said. “Did Joanna mean knowingly to create life within the dance? Why did the child die? Who was the father?”

“Because its heart was too great, perhaps, or its body too feeble: how should I know?” his grandfather answered. “She married a man who was reckoned knowledgeable, but he led an evil life and he was a plaything compared to Joanna. She longed to adore him, and she could only mock at him and herself. Yet she was fierce for him after the flesh, and she made him her child’s father and hated him for his feebleness. She would strike and taunt him while the child was in her womb — for love and anger and hate and scorn and fear. The child was a seven-months’ child, and it died. The father ran away from her the day before it was born, and the same night was killed in a street accident when he was drunk. But Joanna, when she heard that the child was dead, screamed once and her face changed, and the Tarot cards that she sought (as we have all done), and the myth of gods that she studied, and the child that should have been a lord of power and was instead a five-hours-old body of death — these tangled themselves in her brain for ever; and for fifty years she has sought the thing that she calls Osiris because it dies and Horus because it lives and at night little sweet names which only Stephen hears. And it has one and twenty faces, which are the faces of them within and of the Tarots, and when she finds the limbs that have been torn apart by her enemy, who is her husband and is Set and is we who seek the cards also, she thinks she will again become the Queen of Heaven, and the twice twenty-one gods shall adore her with incense and chanting. No doubt she is mad, Henry, but I had rather deal with your other mad creature than with her.”

Henry meditated for some time, walking about the room in silence; then he said, “Well, there’s no reason why she should hear of it, unless she snuffs the news up out of the air.”

“She may even do that,” Aaron said. “Her life is not as ours, and the air and the lords of the sceptres are one.”

“In any case, I don’t see what she can do to interfere with us,” Henry answered. “She had her chance and lost it. I will see that I don’t lose mine. As for Coningsby —” He walked up and down the room for a few minutes in silence; then he said, “I’ve a good mind to try and get them here for Christmas. It’s a month off — that ought to give me time. You could manage, I suppose?”

“What good would that be?” his grandfather asked.

Henry sat down again. “Why, it’s clear,” he said, “that we shall have to let them know something — Nancy and her father anyhow. If he’s got to give us the cards he’s got to have a reason for doing it, and so far as I can see —”

“You’re not going to show him them?” Aaron exclaimed, glancing over his shoulder at the door of the inner room.

“Why not?” Henry asked lightly. “What does it matter? There’re all sorts of explanations. Besides, I want to show Nancy, and she’ll be able to work on him better if he’s seen them.”

“But he’ll tell people!” Aaron protested.

“What can he tell them?” Henry asked. “And, if he does, who’s to believe him? Besides — after we’ve got the cards . . . well, we don’t know what we can do, do we? I’m sure that’s the best. See, I’ll ask Nancy — and she’ll bring her aunt, I suppose —”

“Her aunt?” Aaron interrupted sharply. “How many are you going to bring? Who is this aunt?”

“Her aunt,” Henry said, “is just the opposite to her father. As serene and undisturbed as . . . as they are. Nothing puts her out; nothing disturbs her. Yet she isn’t a fool. She’ll be quite harmless, however: it won’t matter whether she sees or not. She’ll be interested, but not concerned. Well, Nancy and her aunt and her father. I’ll try and dodge the brother; he’s simply a bore. There’ll be the three of them, and me; say, for — Christmas Day’s on a Saturday, isn’t it? — say, from Thursday to Tuesday, or a day or two longer. Well?”

“But will he come?” Aaron asked doubtfully.

“I think he may,” Henry said. “Oh, of course he won’t want to, but, as he won’t want to do anything else in particular, it may be possible to work it. Only you’d better keep Joanna out of the way.”

“I don’t know in the least where she is,” the old man said irritably.

“Can’t you find out by the cards?” Henry smiled. “Or must you wait for the Tarots?” On the word his face changed, and he came near to the table. “We will certainly have them,” he said in a low, firm voice. “Who knows? perhaps we can find out what the Fool means, and why it doesn’t dance.”

Aaron caught his sleeve. “Henry,” he breathed, “if — if there should be an accident — if there should — who would get the cards?”

“Don’t be a fool,” Henry said roughly. “Haven’t you always told me that violence breaks the knowledge of the cards?”

“They told me so,” the old man answered reluctantly, “but I don’t see . . . anyhow, we needn’t both . . . ”

“Wait,” his grandson answered, and turned to pick up his coat. “I must get back.” He stretched himself, and laughed a little. “Nancy told me to have a good night,” he said, “and here I am spending it talking to you.”

“Don’t talk too much to these people of yours,” Aaron grumbled, “Nancy or any of them.”

His grandson pulled on his coat. “Nancy and I will talk to one another,” he said, “and perhaps what we say shall be stranger talk than ever lovers had before. Good night. I will tell you what I can do about it all in London.”

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