The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eleven

The Conversion Of Damaris Tighe

It was not the least among the vexations which interfered with Damaris Tighe’s exposition of culture that building had begun at the back of her house. For years, indeed ever since they had come to live at Smetham, their garden had looked out over a lane and fields beyond. But quite recently the fields had been bought as a desirable building estate, and a number of villas were to be put up — villas in which it seemed probable that a very different class of people would live from collators of MSS. and students of philosophy. Or so Damaris, who knew very little about people, assumed. They would play tennis, not for an amusement but for a business; they would give parties on lawns; they would talk the jargon of motor-cars and wireless and the gossip of commerce and love. And they would shut her in on every side.

Some of them would be pleasant enough, perhaps here and there one of them would almost have a mind. But even so it probably wouldn’t be the kind that would be any use to her. If it were, she could very well make use of a little help in copying and arranging and so on. But probably that was too much to hope for.

It was going on for eight on that Sunday evening when Damaris shut her books and reluctantly decided that she would call her father to supper. If he would have any; he had been eating less and less for the last day or two, and had entirely declined the cold chicken they had had for lunch, contenting himself with a little fruit. Damaris had decided that he must be ill, and she proposed to tell him at supper that she would send for the doctor on Monday. More trouble, she thought; he was probably going to have influenza, and that would mean more work for the maid, and possibly more dislocation of her already dislocated hours. Perhaps she could get him to go away for a few days; if he was going to be ill he had better be ill in a seaside hotel than at home. It would be more convenient for her, and make no particular difference to him. People could be ill anywhere, and they couldn’t study bygone cultures anywhere, nor accurately plot out the graph of human thought. There was to be a graph of human thought as an appendix — three graphs actually, from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1200, showing respectively the relation of official thought, cultural thought, and popular thought to the ideas of personalized and depersonalized supernatural powers. By looking at the graph it would be quite easy to see what attitude an Athenian citizen of the age of Thucydides, an Alexandrian friend of Plotinus, or a Burgundian peasant of the Middle Ages had towards this personification. All the graphs had additional little curves running out of them, marked with certain great names. Eusebius of Caesarea, who had identified Platonic ideas with the thoughts of the Christian God, had one; so had Synesius of Cyrene — only she had mislaid her note on Synesius, and couldn’t at the moment remember why he was distinguished in that way; so had William of Occam, Albert, and of course Abelard. Personification was in itself evidence of a rather low cultural state; she had called it somewhere “The mind’s habit of consoling itself with ideographs.” As education developed so a sense of abstraction grew up, and it became more possible to believe that the North Wind was a passage of air, and not an individual, or that St. Michael was a low-class synonym for — probably for just warfare, and justice pure and simple. Which was why he weighed the souls of mankind at Chartres. It was a good graph, and she was proud of it. There would be six appendices in all, but this and the new one on the Creation would be the most important.

She settled her papers. As she did so the air was suddenly shaken by a number of heavy thuds, accompanied by a rain of minor noises. Things at a distance were falling — a great number of things. She went quickly over to the window, and saw to her great astonishment that the newly built houses opposite her were falling in. Falling right down, rather: she stood and stared. The whole row of houses was in a state of increasing collapse. Some were already almost down, and the one nearest her even as she looked began to waver. It sagged inward, a row of bricks came slipping out of the wall, and dropped bumping to the earth. The chimney pots fairly dissolved; it was as if the whole strength of the house was melting. Damaris shrugged; she had said often enough how shameful all this modern jerry-building was, and here was her statement absolutely proved. She remained looking at it in a state of mild complacency. The inefficiency was disgusting; the thing had no backbone to it — no . . . no . . . for a moment she fought a consciousness of the word “guts” and substituted “real knowledge.” It was after all the reality of one’s knowledge that mattered. She knew — a sudden terrific crash as the roof fell in distracted and for a moment deafened her. She turned back into the room. “It’s fortunate,” she thought idly, “that there was no one living in them.”

It was five minutes to eight. She thought abruptly, as she very often did, “O I must get it.” Doctor of Philosophy — how hard she had worked for it! The . . . O the smell!

In full strength it took her, so violently that she stepped backward and made an involuntary gesture outward. The horror of it nearly made her faint. It must, she thought, be something to do with these new houses; some corrupt material had been used. The smell was corruption. Something would have to be done; the Council Surveyor must be called in. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad downstairs. Her window faced the fallen houses; the dining-room looked the other way. She would go down and see.

As she moved the sunlight that was over her papers, except for the light shadow that she herself cast, was totally obscured. A heavy blackness obliterated it in an instant; the papers, the table, all that part of the room lay in gloom. The change was so immediate that even Damaris’s attention was caught, and, still wrinkling her nose at the appalling smell, she glanced half round to see what dark cloud had suddenly filled the sky. And then she did come much nearer to fainting than ever before in her life.

Outside the window something was . . . was. That was the only certainty her startled senses conveyed. There was a terrific beak protruding through the open window into the room, there was the most appalling body she had ever conceived possible; there were two huge flapping wings; there were two horrible red eyes. And there was the smell. Damaris stood stock still, gasping at it, thinking desperately, “I’m dreaming.” The beastly apparition remained. It seemed to be perched there, on the window-sill or the pear-tree or something. Its eyes held her; its wings moved, as if uncertainly opening; its whole repulsive body shook and stirred; its beak — not three yards distant — jerked at her, as if the thing were stabbing; then it opened. She had a vision of great teeth; incapable of thought, she stumbled backward against the table, and remained fixed. Something in her said, “It can’t be”; something else said, “It is.” She’d been overworking; that must be it. It was . . . it was like spots before the eyes. It wasn’t; it was detestably different. It — O God, the thing was moving. It was coming . . . it wasn’t . . . it was, it was coming in. She couldn’t see how; whether the window broke or melted or what, but it was certainly nearer. The beak was not much more than a yard off now; the huge leathern-like wings were opening out within the room, or partly within it. She couldn’t in the foetid darkness which was spreading round her see which was room and which was horror, but she flung herself wildly back, scrambling and scrabbling somehow across her table. Her papers went flying before her, her books, her pen — everything fell from it as Damaris Tighe, unconscious of her work for the first time for years, got herself on the table, and pushed herself somehow across it. The thing stayed still watching her; only the wings furled and unfurled themselves slowly, as if there were no hurry — no hurry at all, but what it had to do. She was half on her feet again, crouching, sliding, getting sideways towards the door, feeling for the handle, praying wildly to Anthony, to her father, to Abelard and Pythagoras, to Anthony again. If only Anthony were here! She got hold of the handle; of course that beak, those eyes, that smell — O that sickening and stupendous smell! — were all dreams. She was asleep; in a minute she would be outside the door, then she would wake up. In a few seconds. The little eyes gleamed greed at her. She was outside; she banged the door.

On the landing she leaned against the banisters, and dimly considered pulling herself together. For the first time in her life she wanted somebody very badly, somebody — but Anthony for choice. Only Anthony had been driven away that morning. Her father then. Only her father was separated from her. Somebody, somebody to break this awful loneliness that had settled on her, this loneliness in which the memory of that horror was her only companion. O somebody . . . somebody. “I’m being silly,” she thought. What was that idea of pulling herself together? And . . . and what was that other noise? She looked up.

Over the skylight above her head she saw something dragged, and knew it for an edge of those wings. There was a noise of scratching; a crack; more scratching or what sounded like scratching. The wing disappeared; came back; went again. And again she saw the beak, thrusting down through the open skylight, stabbing, questing. All bonds of habit broken, mad and fearful of madness, she screamed out and flung herself down the stars. “Father!” she cried, “Father!” and found him standing before her in the hall.

He was looking at her with that utter detachment which had come on him — not so much looking as allowing her, rather reluctantly, to be visible to him. She caught his arm, staggering, and babbling nonsense. Only sometimes she paused and clung, in frightened tears, in terror, in anguish. She didn’t dare look round, she looked at him; he would know, he would see, he would do something; and she herself could do nothing at all. But in some two or three minutes she ceased, for there crept into her exhausted consciousness the thought that all this was vain. He was still looking at her, from a placid detachment, and all he said was, “Yes, yes. Well, I was afraid you might get hurt,” and the very words cost him an effort, so that there seemed to be great silences betwixt them. Then as if relieved of her presence his eyes went blank, his voice changed. “Ah!” he murmured, “Ah!” and sighed happily, and pushed at her as if she were hindering him, pushed her away, back into the corruption that was growing round her in the dreadful odour which renewed itself, and was attacking her with a vehemence which made it seem the very body of the creature of her terror.

As he pushed her she loosed hold. It was some stranger who went by, and up the stairs — she gave another wild scream as he did so — a half warning, only he took no notice. He went from her, lost in the contemplation which held him, going away with his memories and his knowledge thick over and around him, abandoned by and abandoning everything but the pure certainty of beauty which he had seen. She dared not go that way; she screamed once more, and took a desperate little run. But her feet didn’t seem to move easily; they were sticking, sinking; she had to pull them out of the floor, or the ground, the damp marshy ground they were toiling through. She looked down; the floor was half floor and half bog, squelchy green spreading under her in patches, which widened and joined themselves, and she was being held by them as she moved. She looked up and saw the shape of the walls and ceiling, but now spectral and growing fainter against a wide open space, a vast plain, stretching emptily away to where at the horizon a heavy and inflamed sky sank to meet it. The house was no more than a shadowy diagram; all the solidity had vanished, and a mere arrangement of lines showed against the wild background. She saw it, and yet did not feel it as altogether unknown: she had somewhere been acquainted with that desolate plain. Right in front of her, beyond the framework of the front door, was the gleam of water. She dragged her feet from the mire and tried to get firmer footing, while her mind sought to remember the name of the place. She had never seen it yet she knew — O very well she knew it, and the figure that was coming towards her across it from far away, a tiny figure, so distant was it, but human. As she gazed she heard another sound above, and looked up to see the earlier horror flying round in circles high over her. There she stood on the edge of a swampy pool, with the pterodactyl wheeling round in the sky, and one remote companion. She couldn’t be frightened more; her dulled mind, as she stood there helplessly, returned to that approaching form, and there again she thought she recognized something familiar in its movement. It came on quickly: it was a man wrapped in a kind of large cloak, bareheaded, bald — no, not bald, but with a head shaved in a tonsure. Her remote memory woke — it was a medieval priest; he came on towards her still more quickly, and then, though his face was strange, she knew him with a quick certainty. It was — it was Peter Abelard himself, Abelard, mature, but still filled with youth because of the high intensity of his philosophical passion, and he was singing as he came: singing the words that he had himself composed, and which a voice of her own past had spoken to her but lately:

O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata.

Against that angry sky he came on, in that empty land his voice rang out in joy, and she tried to move; she ran a few steps forward, and made an effort to speak. Her voice failed; she heard herself making grotesque noises in her throat, and suddenly over him there fell the ominous shadow of the pterodactyl. Only for a few seconds, then it passed on, and he emerged from it, and his face was towards her, but now it had changed. Now it was like a vile corpse, and yet still it was uttering things: it croaked at her in answer to her own croakings, strange and meaningless words. Individualiter, essentialiter, categoricorum, differentia substantialis— croak, croak, croak. He was coming towards her, and she was trying to run away; and now the blackness had fallen on them both, and the horrid presence of that other filthy being had swept down. She shrieked and stumbled and fell and it caught her.

Something touched her face; something swept her arm; something enveloped and weighed against her heart. Her eyes were shut; she had no power to look again. Her brain was dazed; she had no power to think. Her mouth was panting horribly; and from it, wrenched by a physical power from a physical consciousness, there came one last and feeble and continuous effort to call Anthony. “An . . . An . . . A . . . A . . . A . . . ” she was saying, and the effort became mere gasps as she shook and shrank. There was something which could save her — something if that something would come. She lay in a heap and the great flap of great wings beat over her, and she felt them pressing her, and something had hurt her head. “A . . . A . . . A . . . ” she went on moaning, and claws pressed the back of her neck, dreadful, horrible claws. The smell was working within her; in some way it was Abelard. It was Abelard, and the wings lifted and again caught her. She was on her face on the marshy ground, and she was being forced over. As well as she could she hid herself, but it was all in vain. There was nothing round her but a hideous and vile corruption, nothing, nothing except a vibration that went rhythmically through her, as if — almost from somewhere within her — a horse were galloping. And then she heard her name.

It wasn’t cried aloud; it was spoken as normally as it had been spoken a hundred times in that place — the state of knowledge. When she heard it she felt herself straining to hear it again, and did, but this time with a note of command in it, so that in a hasty obedience she opened her eyes. That was what, by nothing but her name speeded on music, she had been bidden to do. She obeyed; not easily, but she obeyed.

Anthony was standing near her, and behind him was the brightness of a sky lovely in a summer sunset. His arm was stretched out towards her, and she felt the weight upon her lifting. He called to her by her name, and she answered with his own, with the name of which she had cried for help, but hardly murmured now, so spent was she. Nevertheless as she breathed it she felt herself free, and then there was the shade of wings in the air, and another flying thing sailed into sight and floated slowly down to his shoulder. There, eagle-plumaged, eagle-beaked, eagle-eyed, it rested; he raised his hand, and as if in an august leniency it allowed itself to be caressed. His eyes, as he leaned his head aside, full of love and loving laughter, rested on hers. She received with joy both love and laughter; there went out from him, and from the Augustitude upon his shoulder, a knowledge of safety would she but take it, and freely and humbly she let it enter her being. The thing she had rejected and yet used gathered and expanded round him as if a glory attended him. He looked down at her, and though she longed for him to gather her and let her feel more closely the high protection of his power, she was content to wait upon his will. As she made that motion of assent she felt the wildness of the desolate plain shut out. A covering formed over them and hid the sky; shelter was restored, and when at last he moved and came to her, and she half-raised herself to meet him, her hand touched the mat at the dining-room door, and she knew she was lying again in her own house. As he moved the eagle-form left his shoulder, swept up and round, passed her and disappeared in the shadows of the room.

But she had not time for that fantastic dream; she looked at her cousin, and felt that either she or he had changed. There was in him something which shook her with a fear, but with a fear very different from that which she had felt but now. This was power and intelligence; this was command. He came over to her, stretching out his hands, and said as he took hers: “You were only just in time, weren’t you, dearest?”

“Yes,” she said, and got to her feet, holding tightly to his grasp. He put his arm round her, and took her to a chair, and stood for awhile in front of her silent. She said suddenly: “What was it?”

He looked at her gravely. “I wonder what you’ll say if I tell you,” he said.

“I shall believe you,” she answered simply. “Anthony, I’m . . . I’m sorry.”

The laughter broke out again in his eyes. “And why are you sorry, my cousin?” he asked.

“I’ve behaved very badly,” Damaris said. To tell him seemed to her more important than anything else in the world could be, even the vanished monstrosity.

Anthony took her hand again, and kissed it. “And how have you behaved badly, my cousin?” he asked.

“I’ve tried to make use of you,” Damaris said, beginning to blush. “I’ve been . . . I’ve been . . . ”

“ . . . the first-born of Lilith, who is illusion, and Samael the Accursed,” Anthony finished. “Yes, darling. But that doesn’t matter between us. It isn’t that which you saw.”

“What was it?” Damaris asked shuddering and looking round in a renewed servile fear. Even as she did so he released his hand from hers and stepped back, so that, as she moved hastily to catch hold of him again, he was beyond her reach, and as he spoke there was a sternness in his voice.

“You saw what you know,” he said, “and because it’s the only thing you know you saw like that. You’ve been told about it often enough; you’ve been warned and warned again. You’ve had it whispered to you and shouted at you — but you wouldn’t stop or think or believe. And what you wouldn’t hear about you’ve seen, and if you’re still capable of thanking God you’d better do it now. You, with your chatter about this and the other, your plottings and plannings, and your little diagrams, and your neat tables — what did you think you would make of the agonies and joys of the masters? O I know such things must be: we must shape to ourselves the patterns in what they said — man must use his mind. But you’ve done more than use it, you’ve loved it for your own. You’ve loved it and you’ve lost it. And pray God you’ve lost it before it was too late, before it decayed in you and sent up that stink which you smelt, or before the knowledge of life turned to the knowledge of death. Somewhere in you there was something that loved truth, and if ever you studied anything you’d better study that now. For perhaps you won’t get another chance.”

She put out her hand for his. “But tell me,” she said, “I don’t understand. What ought I to do? How can that thing . . . that horrible thing . . . what do you mean? Anthony, tell me. I know I’ve tried to use you. . . . ”

“You’ve tried to use something else than me,” Anthony said more gently, but he did not take her hand. “And it’s up to you to stop. Or not.”

“I’ll try to stop if you think I ought to,” Damaris said. “But what did I see?”

“I’ll tell you,” he said, “if you want me to. Do you want me to?”

She gripped him suddenly. “Why did you come to me?” she exclaimed, and he answered simply, “Because I heard you call.”

“Tell me,” she said, and he began, going over the tale as it had been known to him. But he spoke now neither with the irritation nor with the amusement which she had felt in him of old; his voice convinced her of what he said, and the authority that was in it directed and encouraged even while it awed and warned her. He neither doubted nor permitted her to doubt; the whole gospel — morals and mythology at once — entered into and possessed her. When he came to speak of Quentin’s flight she trembled a little as she sat and tried to move her hand away. But Anthony, standing above her and looking out towards the darkening eastern sky, did not release it; half a chain and half a caress, his own retained hers by the same compulsion that she heard in his voice, and he exposed her to the knowledge of what she had done. Merciless and merciful, he held her; pitiful and unpitying, he subordinated her to the complete realization of herself and her past.

“So,” he ended at last, “we can’t tell what will happen. But I don’t think,” he added, his voice lightening, “that there is much time left before it does. I shall know presently what I have to do.”

After a long silence she said, “Do you know, Anthony, I think perhaps I ought. . . . ” She paused.

“Ought?” he asked.

“Ought to go and look for your friend.”

He considered it gravely. “I had expected to do it myself,” he said, “but I don’t feel that I ought. . . . There’s some other thing . . . Why will you go?”

“It’s either that or Abelard,” she said, smiling faintly. “My father doesn’t want me.”

“No,” he answered. “I think your father’s almost dead already. I thought so when he let me in just now — before I found you lying on the floor.”

She shuddered again. “O darling, it was dreadful when he pushed me away,” she said, and he answered again, looking down on her, tender and stern at once: “And you — if it comes to pushing away?”

In such conversation, question and answer exchanged between them while Damaris searched her heart and the dark places where the images of obscene profanations dwelt, they stayed for a long time. They did not hear the noise where, at the back of the house, a crowd surged and pushed and stared and laughed and talked round the fallen houses, and told one another how here a boarding and there a fence had also given way, and how funny it was. Nor did they interrupt above them the trance that was increasing upon her father where he lay stretched on his bed, content now not even to move, and aware only of the vision of living colour that possessed him, as the beauty to which he had offered himself accepted inevitably that surrender, and softly gathered him into itself. In the town the living outposts of the invasion awaited it — Richardson and Foster and Dora Wilmot — each after their kind. Beyond the town change was proceeding; in a great circle round that solitary house there was no living thing but a few men and women, unconscious yet of the doom. Birds and insects and animals had all vanished — all but the sheep; they alone in their field seemed to know nothing of the Angels of that other world. And even among these Principles and Dominations perhaps none but that Virtue which Anthony had encountered in the pit, and which in its earthly image had deigned to be with him that night when he came to dissipate the fear of that other image which was yet itself to the challenge of the presumptuous and erring mind — none but the Virtue understood, in its soaring comprehension, the safety in which the sheep still lived, or from what yet deeper distance of spirit was to arise the Innocence which everlastingly formed and maintained them.

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