The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Chapter Four

The Chariot

On the Wednesday before Christmas, Henry had arranged to take the Coningsbys to his grandfather’s house. Mr. Coningsby had decided to give them a week of his Christmas vacation from the preoccupations of a Warden in Lunacy, and Henry was very willing that the chances of those critical days should have so long a period in which to be tested. The strange experiment which he and Nancy had tried had left him in a high state of exaltation; he felt his delight in her as a means to his imagined end. Of its effect upon Nancy herself he found it difficult to judge: she did not refer to it again, and was generally rather more silent with him than was her wont. But his own preoccupations were intense, and it may be it was rather his preoccupation than her own which shrouded and a little constrained her. To the outer world, however, she carried herself much as usual, and only Sybil Coningsby noted that her gaiety was at times rather a concealment than a manifestation. But then among that group only Sybil was aware of how many natural capacities are found to be but concealments, how many phenomena disappear before the fact remains. It was long since in her own life the search had begun; with eyes that necessarily veiled their passion she saw in her niece the opening of some other abyss in that first abyss which was love. Mr. Coningsby had spoken more truly than he thought when he accused Sybil of an irresponsibility not unlike Nancy’s; their natures answered each other across the years. But between them lay the experience of responsibility, that burden which is only given in order to be relinquished, that task put into the hands of man in order that his own choice may render it back to its creator, that yoke which, once wholly lifted and put on, is immediately no longer to be worn. Sybil had lifted and relinquished it; from the freedom of a love more single than Nancy’s she smiled at the young initiate who from afar in her untrained innocence beheld the conclusion of all initiations.

She stood now on the steps of the house and smiled at Henry, who was beside her. Nancy was in the hall; Mr. Coningsby was telephoning some last-minute instructions in lunacy to the custodians of lunacy who were for a while to occupy the seat of the warden. Ralph had gone off that morning. It was late afternoon; the weather was cold and fine.

Sybil said: “Have I thanked you for taking us down, Henry?”

He answered, his voice vibrating with great expectation, “It’s a delight, Aunt Sybil: mayn’t I call you that too?”

She inclined her head to the courtesy, and her eyes danced at him as she said, “For Nancy’s sake or mine?”

“For all our sakes,” he answered. “But you’re very difficult to know, aren’t you? You never seem to move.”

“Simeon Stylites?” she asked. “Do I crouch on a tall pillar in the sky? What an inhuman picture!”

“I think you are a little inhuman,” he said. “You’re everything that’s nice, of course, but you’re terrifying as well.”

“Alas, poor aunt!” she said. “But nowadays I thought maiden aunts were nothing uncommon?”

“A maiden aunt —” he began and stopped abruptly. Then he went on with a note of wonder in his voice, “That’s it, you know; that’s exactly it. You’re strange, you’re maiden, you’re a mystery of self-possession.”

She broke into a laugh, almost as delightful, even to him, as Nancy’s. “Henry, mon vieux,” she said, “what do you know about old women?”

“Enough to know you’re not one,” he said. “Aunt Sybil. Sibyl — your very name means you. You’re the marvel of virginity that rides in the Zodiac.”

“That,” she said, “is a most marvellous compliment. If I wasn’t in furs I’d curtsey. You’ll make me wish myself Nancy’s age — for one evening.”

“I think it’s long,” he said, “since you have wished yourself anything but what you are.”

She was prevented from answering by Mr. Coningsby, who hurried Nancy out before him on to the steps and shut the door. They all went down to the car, and a policeman on the pavement saluted Mr. Coningsby as he passed.

“Good evening, good evening, constable,” he said. “Here.” Something passed. “A merry Christmas.”

“Gracious,” Nancy said in Henry’s ear, “father’s almost jovial.”

“That,” Henry answered, “is because he doesn’t regard the police as human. He’d never be harsh to a dog or a poor man. It’s those of his own kind that trouble and fret him.”

“Well, darling,” she said, “I’ve never heard you speak of standing a policeman a drink.” She slipped her hand into his. “O, I’m so thrilled,” she went on, “what with you and Christmas and . . . and all. Is that policeman part of it, do you think? Is he in the sceptres or the swords? Or is he one of your mysterious Trumps?”

“What about the Emperor?” Henry threw at her, as Mr. Coningsby, who had stopped to speak to the constable, probably about the safety of the house, came to the car. Sybil was already in her seat. Nancy slipped into hers, as Mr. Coningsby got in next to Sybil: Henry closed the door, sprang in, and started the car.

There was silence at first. To each of them the movement of the car meant something different and particular; to the two men it was movement to something, to the two women it was much more like movement in something. Mr. Coningsby felt it as a rush towards an immediate future to which he had been compelled and in which he gloomily expected defeat. Henry’s desire swept on to a future in which he expected trial and victory. But to Nancy and Sybil separately the future could not be imagined except as a blessed variation on what they knew; there was nowhere to go but to that in which they each existed, and the time they took to go was only the measure of delight changing into delight. In that enclosed space a quadruple movement of consciousness existed, and became, through the unnoticeable, infinitesimal movements of their bodies, involved and, to an extent, harmonized. Each set up against each of the others a peculiar strain; each was drawn back and controlled by the rest. Knowledge danced with knowledge, sometimes to trouble, sometimes to appease, the corporeal instruments of the days of their flesh.

A policeman’s hand held them up. Henry gestured towards it. “Behold the Emperor,” he said to Nancy.

“You’re making fun of me, my dear,” she half protested.

“Never less,” he said seriously. “Look at him.”

She looked, and, whether the hours she had given to brooding over the Tarots during the last few days, partly to certify her courage to herself, had imposed their forms on her memory, or whether something in the policeman’s shape and cloak under the lights of the dark street suggested it, or whether indeed something common to Emperor and Khalif, cadi and magistrate, praetor and alcalde, lictor and constable, shone before her in those lights — whichever was true, it was certainly true that for a moment she saw in that heavy official barring their way the Emperor of the Trumps, helmed, in a white cloak, stretching out one sceptred arm, as if Charlemagne, or one like him, stretched out his controlling sword over the tribes of Europe pouring from the forests and bade them pause or march as he would. The great roads ran below him, to Rome, to Paris, to Aix, to Byzantium, and the nations established themselves in cities upon them. The noise of all the pausing street came to her as the roar of many peoples; the white cloak held them by a gesture; order and law were there. It moved, it fell aside, the torrent of obedient movement rolled on, and they with it. They flashed past the helmed face, and she found that she had dropped her eyes lest she should see it.

With the avoidance of that face she seemed to have plunged herself deeper into the dream, as if by avoiding it she had assented to it and had acknowledged its being and power. They were not stopped again, but yet, as the car ran smoothly on, she seemed to see that white-clothed arm again and again, now in the darkness beyond the headlights, now pointing forward just outside the window. The streets were busy with Christmas shoppers, but the car shut them out and her in, and, though they were there, it was running steadily away from them — as if down a sloping road while they were all on the high level banks on either hand. They never actually did go down that road, but — as in nightmare — they were always on the very point of plunging. Nancy held desperately to her recollection of a car and a policeman and Henry; she was really beginning to pull herself together when suddenly — somewhere on the outskirts of London — the car slowed for a moment outside the gate of a large building. Over the gate was a light, and under the light was a nurse holding a big key. A gate — a light — a nurse; yet one lobe of her brain showed her again a semblance of one of the Tarot cards — ceremonial robes; imperial headdress, cloak falling like folded wings, proud, austere face lifted towards where in the arch of the gate, so that the light just caught it, was a heraldic carving of some flying creature. Someone, somewhere — perhaps her father behind her — grunted a little, and the grunt seemed to her as if it were wrung from a being in profound pain. And then the car quickened again, and they were flying into the darkness, and away in the roads behind them was that sovereign figure and the sound of a suffering world coming up to it out of the night.

She would have liked to speak to Henry, but she couldn’t. She and he were in the same car, side by side, only she wasn’t at all clear that there was anyone else in the car at all, or that it was a car, that it was anything but herself mysteriously defined to her own knowledge. She was in a trance; the car, though moving, was still — poised, rushing and motionless at once, at the entrance to a huge, deep, and dark defile, from which on either side the mighty figures rose, themselves at once swift and still, and fled past her and yet were for ever there. Indefinable, they defined; they made and held steady the path that was stretched for her. It was a cloud; it was the moon; it was vapour and illusion — or it was the white cloak of the Emperor and the clear cold face of the Empress, as she had seen them when she pored over the Greater Trumps. But the darkness of the low defile awaited her; deeper and deeper, motionless and rushing on, they — she and her companions — were sinking into it. She dared not speak to Henry; he was there, but he was guiding the car; if he were distracted for a moment they might all crash into utter ruin. She let herself take one side-glance at him, a supplication in her heart, but never a finger stirring; and, even as she saw his face, she remembered to have seen it elsewhere. There was a painting — somewhere — of a chariot, driven by some semi-Greek figure scourging on two sphinxes who drew that car, and the face in the painting was Henry’s. Henry’s, and yet there was a difference . . . there was some other likeness: was it (most fantastic of all dreams!) her aunt? The faces, the figures, all rushed together suddenly; something that was neither nurse nor policeman, Empress nor Emperor, Sybil nor Henry, sphinx nor charioteer, grew out of and possessed them all. It was this to which they were rushing, some form that was immediately to be revealed, some face that would grow out of . . .

The car slowed, wheeled as if sweeping round a curve in the road, and suddenly — despite herself — she screamed. For there, with light full on it, thrown up in all its terrible detail, gaunt, bare, and cold, was a man, or the image of a man, hanging by his hands, his body thrust out from the pole that held it, his head dropping to one side, and on it a dreadful tangled headdress. It hung there right before her, and she only knew that it was the wrong way up — the head should have been below; it was always so in the cards, the Hanged Man upside down. But here the Hanged Man was, livid and outstretched before her, his head decked but above. She screamed and woke. At least, everyone supposed she woke. Henry was solicitous and her father was irritable, and, after all, it was only a village war memorial with a rather badly done crucifix.

They took her away from it and Henry comforted her, and she settled down again, apologizing with the most utter shame. A bad dream, of course.

“Darling, of course it was,” Henry murmured.

“Of course it was,” her father snapped.

“Of course it is,” Sybil Coningsby said. “One wakes, Nancy.” So then they went on again, and, except for one other unusual incident — but that was certainly not a dream — reached their destination undisturbed. The incident indeed occurred not far away.

The car had slid through a village — the nearest village to his grandfather’s, Henry told them, and at that a couple of miles away. It had issued thence past the church and rectory on to an upland road, and climbed steadily across the Downs. Mr. Coningsby looked out at the winter darkness and shuddered, thinking of London, Eastbourne, and the next five or six days. Henry had just looked over his shoulder to say “Not far now,” much as one of Dante’s demons might have spoken to a soul he was conducting to its particular circle in Hell. He looked back, swore, and jammed on the brakes. The car protested, slid, and came to a standstill. Six feet in front of it an old woman squatted on the ground, right in the middle of the road. Two feet behind her stood a tall, rough-looking young fellow, as if waiting.

“Good God!” said Mr. Coningsby.

The old woman was apparently speaking, but, shut in the car, they could not hear. Henry opened the door and jumped out. Mr. Coningsby opened his window; Nancy and Sybil instinctively did the same.

“Welcome home, Henry!” the old creature said, in a high shrill voice. Henry took a couple of steps forward — the unknown man moved level with the squatting hag. In the lights of the car she was seen to be very old, shrivelled, and brown. She was wrapped head and body in a stained shawl that had once been red; one foot, which was thrust out from under a ragged skirt, wore a man’s heavy boot. She pushed a hand out from beneath the shawl and waggled the skinny fingers at Henry as if in grotesque greeting.

“What are you doing here?” he asked fiercely.

“He, he!” the grotesque being tittered at him. “I’ve come to see Aaron, Henry. I’m very tired. Won’t you take me up in your grand coach? Me and Stephen. Good little Stephen — he takes care of his grandmother — his gran —” She went off into an indescribable fit of chuckling and choking. Henry looked at Stephen. “Get her out of the way,” he said.

The man looked stupidly back. “She does what she likes,” he said, and turned his eyes again on the old woman.

“Two nice ladies and one nice gentleman,” she babbled. “Kind lady”— she peered at Nancy, who was leaning from the window —“kind lady, have your fortune told? He”— she jerked a thumb at Henry —“thinks he knows fortunes, but is he a goddess? Good luck to you, kind lady, to meet a goddess on the roads. Great good luck for you and your children to have a goddess tell you your doom.”

Henry said something in a low voice that the others couldn’t hear. Sybil opened her door and got out of the car. Mr. Coningsby said sharply, “Sybil, come back,” but she only threw him a smile and remained standing in the road. Most reluctantly he also got out. The hag put her head on one side and looked at them.

“Is the young miss afraid of the goddess?” she said. “Or will she help me look? Blessings on whoever finds him.”

“Out of my way, Joanna,” Henry said, with anger in his voice. “Henry dear,” Sybil said, “is she going our way?” He made a fierce gesture, but did not reply. “Do you know her, Henry?” Mr. Coningsby said sharply. “Father!” Nancy breathed, and touched his arm. “Don’t be cross with us; Henry couldn’t help it.”

“Us,” Mr. Coningsby thought. “You . . . us . . . O!”

“Do you want to come to the house?” Henry asked.

“What house?” she shrilled. “Fields, rivers, sea — that’s his house. Cover for you, beds for you, warmth for you, but my little one’s cold!”

Henry looked over at his friends and made a sign to them that all would be well in a moment. The hag thrust her head on one side and looked up at him.

“If you know —” she cried, more wildly than before. “Curses on you, Henry Lee, if you know and don’t tell me. I’m an old fool, aren’t I, and you’re a clever man and a lawyer, but you’ve gone to live in houses and forgotten the great ones who live in the gipsy tents. And if you find so much as a shred of skin and don’t tell me, so much as the place where a drop of blood has soaked into the ground and don’t tell me, you shall be destroyed with the enemy when I and my son take joy in each other again. I’ll curse you with my tongue and hands, I’ll lay the spell on you, I’ll —”

“Be quiet,” he said harshly. “Who are you to talk, Joanna, the old gipsy-woman?”

“Gipsy I was,” she said, “and I’m something more now. Ha, little frightened ones! Ha, Henry Lee the accursed! Stephen! Stephen!”

“Aye, grandmother,” the man said.

“Say the answers, say the answers. Who am I?”

The man answered in a voice entirely devoid of meaning, “A goddess are you.”

“What’s the name of the goddess?” she shrilled.

“Isis the Wanderer,” he said mechanically.

“What does Isis the Wanderer seek?”

“The flesh and the bones and the heart of the dead,” he answered, and licked his lips.

“Where are the flesh and the bones and the heart of the dead?” she shrilled again.

“Here, there, everywhere,” he said.

“Good Stephen, good Stephen,” she muttered, appeased; and then suddenly scrambled to her feet. Henry jumped forward to interpose himself between her and the other women, and found himself in turn blocked by Stephen. They were on the point of closing with each other when Sybil’s voice checked them.

“And where does the Divine Isis search?” she asked in a perfectly clear voice of urgent inquiry.

The old woman turned her eyes from Nancy to Sybil, and a look of delight came into her face. She took a step or two towards the other.

“Who are you,” she said, “to speak as if you knew a goddess? Where have we seen each other?”

Sybil also moved a step forward. “Perhaps in the rice-fields,” she said, “or in the towns. I don’t remember. Have you found anything that you look for?”

The old creature came nearer yet, and put out her hand as if to feel for Sybil’s. In turn Miss Coningsby stretched out her own, and with those curiously linked hands they stood. Behind, on the one side, the two young men waited in an alert and mutually hostile watch; on the other, Mr. Coningsby, in a fever of angry hate, stood by Nancy at the car door; the Downs and the darkness stretched about them all.

“Aren’t you a stranger and a Christian rat?” the hag said. “How do you know the goddess when you meet her in Egypt?”

“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Sybil said. “Could you search for the god and not belong to his house?”

“Worship me then, worship me!” the insane thing cried out. “Worship the Divine Isis!”

“Ah, but I’ve sworn only to worship the god,” Sybil answered gently. “Let Isis forgive me, and let us look for the unity together.”

“They’ve parted him and torn him asunder,” the creature wailed. “He was so pretty, so pretty, when he played with me once.”

“He will be so lovely when he is found,” Sybil comforted her. “We’ll certainly find him. Won’t you come with me and look?”

The other threw up her head and snuffed the air. “It’s coming,” she said. “I’ve smelt it for days and days. They’re bringing him together — the winds and waters are bringing him. Go your way, stranger, and call me if you find him. I must be alone. Alone I am and alone I go. I’m the goddess.” She peered at Sybil. “But I will bless you,” she said. “Kneel down and I’ll bless you.”

Mr. Coningsby made a sound more like a real Warden in Lunacy than ever in his life before as the tall furred figure of his sister obeyed. But Nancy’s hand lay urgently on his shoulder, even had he meant to interfere. Sybil kneeled in the road, and the woman threw up her arms in the air over her, breaking into a torrent of incomprehensible, outlandish speech, which at the end changed again to English —“This is the blessing of Isis: go in peace. Stephen! Stephen!” He was by her in a moment. “We’ll go, Stephen — not with them, not to-night. Not to-night. I shall smell him, I shall know him, my baby, my Osiris. He was killed and he is coming. Horus, Horus, the coming of God!” She caught the young man by the arm, and hastily they turned and fled into the darkness. Sybil, unaided, rose to her feet. There was a silence, then she said charmingly, “Henry, don’t you think we might go on now? . . . It doesn’t look as if we could be of any use.”

He came to hold the door for her. “You’ve certainly done it,” he said. “How did you know what to say to her?”

“I thought she talked very sensibly,” Sybil said, getting into the car. “In her own way, of course. And I wish she’d come with us, that is, if . . . would it be very rude to say I gathered she had something to do with your family?”

“She’s my grandfather’s sister,” he answered. “She’s mad, of course; she — but I’ll tell you some other time. Stephen was a brat she picked up somewhere; he’s nothing to do with us, but she’s taught him to call her ‘grandmother’, because of a child that should have been.”

“Conversation of two aunts,” said Sybil, settling herself. “I’ve known many wilder minds.”

“What were you at, Sybil?” Mr. Coningsby at last burst out. “Of all the scandalous exhibitions! Really, Henry, I think we’d better go back to London. That my sister should be subjected to this kind of thing! Why didn’t you interfere?”

“My dear, it would mean an awful bother — going back to London,” Sybil said. “Everything’s settled up there. I’m a little cold, Henry, so do you think we could go fairly fast? We can talk about it all when we get in.”

“Kneeling in the road!” Mr. Coningsby went on. “O, very well — if you will go. Perhaps we shall smell things too. Is your grandfather anything like his sister, Henry? If so, we shall have a most agreeable Christmas. He might like me to kneel to him at intervals, just to make things really comfortable.”

Sybil laid a hand on his knee. “Leave it to me to complain,” she said. “All right, Henry; we all know you hated it much more than the rest of us.” Nancy’s hand came over the seat and felt for hers; she took it. “Child, you’re frozen,” she said. “Let’s all get indoors. Even a Christian rat — all right, Henry — likes a little bacon-rind by the fire. Lothair dear, I was going to ask you when we stopped — what star exactly is that one over there?”

“Star!” said Mr. Coningsby, and choked. He was still choking over his troubles when they stopped before the house, hardly visible in the darkness. He was, however, a trifle soothed by the servant who was at the door and efficiently extricated them, and by the courtesies which the elder Mr. Lee, who was waiting just within the hall, immediately offered them. He found it impossible not, within the first two minutes, to allude to the unfortunate encounter; “the sooner,” he said to himself, “this — really rather pleasant — old gentleman understands what his sister’s doing on the roads the better.”

The response was all he could have wished. Aaron, tutored at intervals during the last month by his grandson in Mr. Coningsby’s character and habits, was highly shocked and distressed at his guests’ inconvenience. Excuses he proffered; explanations he reasonably deferred. They were cold; they were tired; they were, possibly, hungry. Their rooms were ready, and in half an hour, say, supper —“We won’t call it dinner,” Aaron chatted on to Mr. Coningsby while accompanying him upstairs; Sybil and Nancy had been given into the care of maids. “We won’t call it dinner to-night. You’ll forgive our deficiencies here — in your own London circle you’ll be used to much more adequate surroundings.”

“It’s a very fine house,” said Mr. Coningsby, stopping on what was certainly a very fine staircase.

“Seventeen-seventeen,” Aaron told him. “It was built by a Jacobite peer who only just escaped attainder after the Fifteen and was compelled to leave London. It’s a curious story; I’ll tell it you some time. He was a student and a poet, besides being a Jacobite, and he lived here for the rest of his life in solitude.”

“A romantic story,” Mr. Coningsby said, feeling some sympathy with the Jacobite peer.

“Here’s the room I’ve ventured to give you,” Aaron said. “You can’t see much from the windows to-night, but on a clear day you can sometimes just catch a glimpse of the sea. I hope you’ve everything. In half an hour, then, shall we say?”

He pattered away, a small, old, rather bent, but self-possessed figure, and Mr. Coningsby shut his door. “Very different from his sister,” he thought. “Curious how brothers and sisters do differ.” His mind went to Sybil. “In a way,” he went on to himself, “Sybil’s rather irresponsible. She positively encouraged that dreadful old woman. There’s a streak of wildness in her; fortunately it’s never had a chance to get out. Perhaps if that other had had different surroundings . . . but if this is her brother’s house, why’s she wandering about the country? And, anyhow, that settles the question of giving Henry those cards. I shall tell Nancy so if she hints at it again. Fancy giving poor dear Duncannon’s parting gift — the things he left me on his very death-bed — to a fellow with a mad gipsy for an aunt! Isis,” he thought, in deep disgust, “the Divine Isis. Good God!”

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