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The action takes place in Battle Hill, outside London, amidst the townspeople's staging of a new play by Peter Stanhope. The hill seems to reside at the crux of time, as characters from the past appear, and perhaps at a doorway to the beyond, as characters are alternately summoned heavenwards or descend into hell.Pauline Anstruther, the heroine of the novel, lives in fear of meeting her own doppelgänger, which has appeared to her throughout her life. But Stanhope, in an action central to the author's own theology, takes the burden of her fears upon himself—Williams called this The Doctrine of Substituted Love—and enables Pauline, at long last, to face her true self. Williams drew this idea from the biblical verse, "Ye shall bear one another's burdens"And so Stanhope does take the weight, with no surreptitious motive, in the most affecting scene in the novel. And Pauline, liberated, is able to accept truth.On the other hand, Lawrence Wentworth, a local historian, finding his desire for Adela Hunt to be unrequited, falls in love instead with a spirit form of Adela, which seems to represent a kind of extreme self-love on his part. As he isolates himself more and more with this insubstantial figure, and dreams of descending a silver rope into a dark pit, Wentworth begins the Descent into Hell.
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Liczba stron: 335
First digital edition 2016 by Anna Ruggieri
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- 1. The Magus Zoroaster
- 2. Via Mortis
- 3. Quest of Hell
- 4. Vision of Death
- 5. Return to Eden
- 6. The Doctrine of Substituted Love
- 7. Junction of Travellers
- 8. Dress Rehearsal
- 9. The Tryst of the Worlds
- 10. The Sound of the Trumpet
- 11. The Opening of Graves
- 12. Beyond Gomorrah
“It undoubtedly needs”, Peter Stanhope said, “a final pulling together, but there’s hardly time for that before July, and if you’re willing to take it as it is, why-” He made a gesture of presentation and dropped his eyes, thus missing the hasty reciprocal gesture of gratitude with which Mrs. Parry immediately replied on behalf of the dramatic culture of Battle Hill. Behind and beyond her the culture, some thirty faces, unessentially exhibited to each other by the May sunlight, settled to attention-naturally, efficiently, critically, solemnly, reverently. The grounds of the Manor House expanded beyond them; the universal sky sustained the whole. Peter Stanhope began to read his play.
Battle Hill was one of the new estates which had been laid out after the war. It lay about thirty miles north of London and took its title from the more ancient name of the broad rise of ground which it covered. It had a quiet ostentation of comfort and culture. The poor, who had createdit, had been as far as possible excluded, nor (except as hired servants) were they permitted to experience the bitterness of others’ stairs. The civil wars which existed there, however bitter, were conducted with all bourgeois propriety. Politics, religion, art, science, grouped themselves, and courteously competed for numbers and reputation. This summer, however, had seen a spectacular triumph of drama, for it had become known that Peter Stanhope had consented to allow the restless talent of the Hill to produce his latest play.
He was undoubtedly the most famous inhabitant. He was a cadet of that family which had owned the Manor House, and he had bought it back from more recent occupiers, and himself settled in it before the war. He had been able to do thisbecause he was something more than a cadet of good family, being also a poet in the direct English line, and so much after the style of his greatest predecessor that he made money out of poetry. His name was admired by his contemporaries and respected bythe young. He had even imposed modern plays in verse on the London theatre, and two of them tragedies at that, with a farce or two, and histories for variation and pleasure. He was the kind of figure who might be more profitable to his neighbourhood dead than alive; dead, he would have given it a shrine; alive, he deprecated worshippers. The young men at the estate office made a refined publicity out of his privacy; the name of Peter Stanhope would be whispered without comment. He endured the growing invasion with a great deal of good humour, and was content to see the hill of his birth become asuburb of the City, as in another sense it would always be. There was, in that latest poetry, no contention between the presences of life and of death; so little indeed that there had been a contention in the Sunday Times whether Stanhope were a pessimist or an optimist. He himself said, in reply to an interviewer’s question, that he was an optimist and hated it.
Stanhope, though the most glorious, was not the only notorious figure of the Hill. There was Mr. Lawrence Wentworth, who was the most distinguished living authority on military history (perhaps excepting Mr. Aston Moffatt). Mr. Wentworth was not in the garden on that afternoon. Mrs. Catherine Parry was; it wasshe who would produce the play, as in many places and at many times she had produced others. She sat near Stanhope now, almost as tall as he, and with more active though not brighter eyes. They were part of that presence which was so necessary to her profession. Capacity which, in her nature, had reached the extreme Of active life, seemed in him to have entered the contemplative, so much had his art become a thing of his soul. Where, in their own separate private affairs, he interfered so little as almostto seem inefficient, she was so efficient as almost to seem interfering.
In the curve of women and men beyond her, other figures, less generally famous, sat or lay as the depth of their chairs induced them. There were rising young men, and a few risen andretired old. There were ambitious young women and sullen young women and loquacious young women. They were all attentive, though, as a whole, a little disappointed. They had understood that Mr. Stanhope had been writing a comedy, and had hoped for a moderncomedy. When he had been approached, however, he had been easy but firm. He had been playing with a pastoral; if they would like a pastoral, it was very much at their service. Hopes and hints of modern comedies were unrealized: it was the pastoral or nothing. They had to be content. He consented to read it to them; he would not do more. He declined to make suggestions for the cast; he declined to produce. He would like, for his own enjoyment, to come to some of the rehearsals, but he made it clear that hehad otherwise no wish to interfere. Nothing-given the necessity of a pastoral-could be better; the production would have all the advantage of his delayed death without losing any advantage of his prolonged life. As this became clear, the company grew reconciled. They gazed and listened, while from the long lean figure, outstretched in its deck-chair, there issued the complex intonation of great verse. Never negligible, Stanhope was often neglected; he was everyone’s second thought, but no one’s first. The convenience of all had determined this afternoon that he should be the first, and his neat mass of grey hair, his vivid glance, that rose sometimes from themanuscript, and floated down the rows, and sank again, his occasional friendly gesture that seemed about to deprecate, but always stopped short, received the concentration of his visitors, and of Mrs. Parry, the chief of his visitors.
It became clear to Mrs. Parry as the afternoon and the voice went on, that the poet had been quite right when he had saidthat the play needed Pulling together. “It’s all higgledy-piggledy,” she said to herself, using a word which a friend had once applied to a production of the Tempest, and, in fact to the Tempest itself. Mrs, Parry thought that this pastoral was in some Ways, rather like the Tempest. Mr. Stanhope, of course, was not as good as Shakespeare, because Shakespeare was the greatest English poet, so that Stanhope wasn’t. But there was a something. To begin with, it had no title beyond A Pastoral. That was unsatisfactory. Then the Plot was incredibly loose. it was of no particular time and no particular place, and to any cultured listener it seemed to have little bits of everything and everybody put in at odd moments. The verse was undoubtedly Stanhope’s own, of hislatest, most heightened, and most epigrammatic style, but now and then all kinds of reminiscences moved in it. Once, during the second act, the word Pastiche floated through Mrs. Parry’s mind, but went away again on her questioning whether a Pastiche would be worth the trouble of Production. There was a Grand Duke in it who had a beautiful daughter, and this daughter either escaped from the palace or was abducted — anyhow, she came into the power of a number of brigands; and then there was a woodcutter’s son who frequently burned leaves, and he and the princess fell in love, and there were two farmers who were at odds, and the Grand Duke turned up in disguise, first in a village and then in the forest, through which also wandered an escaped bear, who spokethe most Complex verse, excepting the Chorus. The Chorus had no kind of other name; at first Mrs. Parry thought they might be villagers, then, since they were generally present in the forest, she thought they might be trees, or perhaps (with a vague reminiscence of Comus) spirits. Stanhope had not been very helpful; he had alluded to them as an experiment. By the end of the reading, it was clear to Mrs. Parry that it was very necessary to decide what exactly this Chorus was to be.
She had discouraged discussion of the play during the intervals between the four acts, and as soon as it was over tea was served. If, however, the poet hoped to get away from discussion by means of tea he was mistaken. There was a little hesitation over the correct word; fantasticwas dangerous, and poetic both unpopular and supererogatory, though both served for variations on idyllic, which was Mrs. Parry’s choice and won bylengths. As she took her second cup of tea, however, she began to close. She said: “Yes, idyllic, Mr. Stanhope, and so significant!”
“It’s very good of you,” Stanhope murmured. “But you see I was right about revision — the plot must seem very loose.”
Mrs. Parry waved the plot up into benevolence. “But there are a few points,” she went on. “The Chorus now. I don’t think I follow the Chorus.”
“The Chorus could be omitted,” Stanhope said. “It’s not absolutely necessary to a presentation.”
Before Mrs. Parry could answer, a young woman named Adela Hunt, sitting close by, leant forward. She was the leader of the younger artistic party, who were not altogether happy about Mrs. Parry. Adela had some thoughts of taking up production herself as her life-work, and it would have been a great advantage to have started straight away with Peter Stanhope. But her following was not yet strong enough to deal with Mrs. Parry’s reputation. She was determined, however, if possible, to achieve a kind of collaboration by means of correction. “O, we oughtn’t to omit anything, ought we?” she protested. “A work of art can’t spare anything that’s a part of it.”
“My dear,” Mrs. Parry said, “you must consider your audience. What will the audience make of the Chorus?”
“It’s for them to make what they can of it,” Adela answered. “We can only give them a symbol. Art’s always symbolic, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Parry pursed her lips. “I wouldn’t say symbolic exactly,” she said slowly. “It has a significance, of course, and you’ve got to convey that significance to the audience. We want to present it — to interpret.”
As she paused, distracted by the presentation by the poet of two kinds of sandwiches, Adela broke in again.
“But, Mrs. Parry, how can one interpret a symbol? One can only mass it. It’s all of a piece, and it’s the total effect that creates the symbolical force.”
“Significant, not symbolical,” saidMrs. Parry firmly. “You mustn’t play down to your audience, but you mustn’t play away from them either. You must”— she gesticulated “intertwine . . . harmonize. So you must make it easy for them to get into harmony. That’s what’s wrong with a deal of modern art; it refuses — it doesn’t establish equilibrium with its audience or what not. In a pastoral play you must have equilibrium.”
“But the equilibrium’s in the play,” Adela urged again, “a balance of masses. Surely that’s what drama is-a symbolical contrast of masses.”
“Well,” Mrs. Parry answered with infuriating tolerance, “I suppose you might call it that. But it’s more effective to think of it as significant equilibrium-especially for a pastoral. However, don’t let’s be abstract. The question is, what’s to be done about the Chorus? Had we better keep it in or leave it out? Which would you prefer, Mr. Stanhope?”
“I should prefer it in, if you ask me,” Stanhope said politely. “But not to inconvenience the production.”
“It seems to be in the forest so often,” Mrs. Parry mused, dismissing cake. “There’s the distant song in the first act, when the princess goes away from the palace, and the choric dialogue when. . . . It isn’t Dryads, is it?”
A friend of Adela’s, a massive and superb young man of twenty-five,offered a remark. “Dryads would rather wreck the eighteenth century, wouldn’t they?”
“Watteau,” said a young lady near Adela. “You could have them period.”
Mrs. Parry looked at her approvingly. “Exactly, my dear,’ she said. “A very charming fantasy it might be; we must take care it isn’t precious — only period. But, Mr. Stanhope, you haven’t told us — are they Dryads?”
“Actually,” Stanhope answered, “as I told you, it’s more an experiment than anything else. The main thing is — was — that they are non-human.”
“Spirits?” said the Watteau young lady with a trill of pleasure.
“If you like,” said Stanhope, “only not spiritual. Alive, but with a different life-even from the princess.”
“Irony?” Adela exclaimed. “It’s a kind of comment, isn’t it, Mr. Stanhope, onfutility? The forest and everything, and the princess and her lover — so transitory.”
Stanhope shook his head. There was a story, invented by himself, that The Times had once sent a representative to ask for explanations about a new play, and that Stanhope, in his efforts to explain it, had found after four hours that he had only succeeded in reading it completely through aloud: “Which,” he maintained, “was the only way of explaining it.”
“No,” he said now, “not irony. I think perhaps you’d better cut themout.”
There was a moment’s pause. “But we can’t do that, Mr. Stanhope,” said a voice; “they’re important to the poetry, aren’t they?” it was the voice of another young woman, sitting behind Adela. Her name was Pauline Anstruther, and, compared with Adela,shewas generally silent. Now, after her quick question, she added hastily, “I mean-they come in when the princess and the wood-cutter come together, don’t they?” Stanhope looked at her, and she felt as if his eyes had opened suddenly. He said, more slowly:
“In a way, but they needn’t. We could just make it chance.”
“I don’t think that would be nearly as satisfactory,” Mrs. Parry said. “I begin to see my way — the trees perhaps — leaves — to have the leaves of the wood all so helpful to the young people — so charming!”
“It’s a terribly sweet idea,” said the Watteau young lady. “And so true too!”
Pauline, who was sitting next her, said in an undertone: “True?”
“Don’t you think so?” Watteau, whose actual name was Myrtle Fox, asked. “It’s what I always feel-about trees and flowers and leaves and so on — they’re so friendly. Perhaps you don’t notice it so much; I’m rather mystic about nature. Like Wordsworth. I should love to spend days out with nothing but the trees and the leaves and the wind. Only somehow onenever seems to have time. But I do believe they’re all breathing in with us, and it’s such a comfort-here, where there are so many trees. Of course, we’ve only to sink into ourselves to find peace — and trees and clouds and so on all help us. One never need be unhappy. Nature’s so terribly good. Don’t you think so, Mr. Stanhope?”
Stanhope was standing by, silent, while Mrs. Parry communed with her soul and with one or two of her neighbours on the possibilities of dressing the Chorus. He turned his head andanswered, “That Nature is terribly good? Yes, Miss Fox. You do mean ‘terribly’?”
“Why, certainly,” Miss Fox said. “Terribly — dreadfully — very.”
“Yes,” Stanhope said again. “Very. Only — you must forgive me; it comes from doing so much writing, but when Isay ‘terribly’ I think I mean ‘full of terror’. A dreadful goodness.”
“I don’t see how goodness can be dreadful,” Miss Fox said, with a shade of resentment in her voice. “If things are good they’re not terrifying, are they?”
“It was you who said‘terribly’,” Stanhope reminded her with a smile, “I only agreed.”
“And if things are terrifying,” Pauline put in, her eyes half closed and her head turned away as if she asked a casual question rather of the world than of him, “can they be good?”
He lookeddown on her. “Yes, surely,” he said, with more energy. “Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?”
“We’ll have them in shades of green then,” Mrs. Parry broke in, “light to darkg with rich gold sashes and embroidery running all over like twigs, and eachone carrying a conventionalized bough — different lengths, I think. Dark gold stockings.”
“To suggest the trunks?” asked Adela’s friend, Hugh Prescott. @
“Quite,” Mrs. Parry said, and then hesitated. “I’m not sure — perhaps we’d better keep the leaf significances. when they’re still — of course they could stand with their legs twined. . . . ”
“What, with one another’s?” Adela asked in a conscious amazement.
“My dear child, don’t be absurd,” Mrs. Parry said. “Each pair of legs just crossed, so.”— she interlaced her own.
“I could never stand still like that,” Miss Fox said, with great conviction.
“You’d have your arms stretched out to People’s shoulders on each side,” Mrs. Parry said dubiously, “and a little gentle swaying wouldn’t be inappropriate. But perhaps we’d better not risk it. Better have green stockings — we can manage some lovely groupings. Could we call them ‘Chorus of Leaf–Spirits’, Mr. Stanhope?”
“Sweet!” said Miss Fox. Adela, leaning back to Hugh Prescott, said in a very low voice, “I told you,Hugh, she’ll ruin the whole thing. She’s got no idea of mass. she ought to block it violently and leave it without a name. I wouldn’t even have ‘Chorus’. I hope he won’t give way, but he’s rather weak.”
However, Stanhope was, in the politest language, declining to have anything of the sort. “Call it the Chorus,” he said, “or if you like I’ll try and find a name for the leader, and the rest can just dance and sing. But I’m afraid ‘Leaf–Spirits’ would be misleading.”
“What about’Chorus of Nature–Powers’?” asked Miss Fox, but Stanhope only said, smiling, “You will try and make the trees friendly,” which no one quite understood, and shook his head again.
Prescott asked: “Incidentally, I suppose they will be women?”
Mrs. Parry had said, “O, of course, Mr. Prescott,” before the question reached her brain. When it did, she added, “At least . . . I naturally took it for granted. . . . They are feminine, aren’t they?”
Still hankering after mass, Adela said, “It sounds to me more like undifferentiated sex force,” and ignored Hugh’s murmur, “There isn’t much fun in that.”
“I don’t know that they were meant to be either male or female,” Stanhope said. “I told you they were more of an experiment in a different kind of existence. But whether men or women are most like thatis another matter.” He shed an apologetic smile on Mrs. Parry.
“If they’re going to be leaves,” Miss Fox asked, “couldn’t they all wear huge green leaves, so that no one would know if they were wearing knee-breeches or skirts?”
There was a pause while everyone took this in, then Mrs. Parry said, very firmly, “I don’t think that would answer,” while Hugh Prescott said to Adela, “Chorus of Figleaves!”
“Why not follow the old pantomime or the present musical comedy,” Stanhope asked, “and dress your feminine chorus in exquisite masculine costume? That’s what Shakespeare did with his heroines, as often as he could, and made a diagram of something more sharp and wonderful than either. I don’t think you’ll do better. Masculine voices — except boys — would hardly do, nor feminine appearances.”
Mrs. Parry sighed, and everyone contemplated the problem again. Adela Hunt and Hugh Prescott discussed modernity between themselves. Pauline, lying back, like Stanhope, in her chair, was thinking of Stanhope’s phrases, “a different life”, “a terrible good”, and wondering if they were related, if this Chorus over which they were spending so much trouble were indeed an effort to shape in verse a good so alien as to be terrifying. She had never considered good as a thing of terror,and certainly she had not supposed a certain thing of terror in her own secret life as any possible good. Nor now; yet there had been an inhumanity in the great and moving lines of the Chorus. She thought, with an anger generous in its origin but proud and narrow in its conclusion, that not many of the audience really cared for poetry or for Stanhope’s poetry — perhaps none but she. He was a great poet, one of a very few, but what would he do if one evening he met himself coming up the drive? Doppelgaenger, the learned called it, which was no comfort. Another poet had thought of it; she had had to learn the lines at school, as an extra task because of undone work:
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
She had never done the imposition, for she had had nightmares that night, after reading the lines, and had to go sick for days. But she had always hated Shelley since for making it so lovely, when it wasn’t loveliness but black panic. Shelley never seemed to suggest that the good might be terrible. What would Peter Stanhope do? what could he? if he met himself?
They were going: people were getting up and moving off. Everyone was being agreeably grateful to Stanhope for his lawn, his tea, and his poetry. In her fear of solitude she attached herself to Adela and Hugh and Myrtle Fox, who were all saying good-bye at once. As he shook hands he said casually: “You don’t think they are?” and she did not immediately understand the reference to the measurement of Omnipotence by mortal tremors. Her mind was on Myrtle, who lived near her. She hated the pang of gratitude she felt, and hated it more because she despised Miss Fox. But at least she wouldn’t be alone, and the thing she hated most only came, or had so far only come, when shewas alone. She stuck close to Myrtle, listening to Adela as they went.
“Pure waste,” Adela was saying. “Of course, Stanhope’s dreadfully traditional”-how continually, Pauline thought, people misused words like dreadful; if they knew what dread was!-“but he’s got a kind of weight, only he dissipates it. He undermines his mass. Don’t you think so, Pauline?”
“I don’t know,” Pauline said shortly, and then added with private and lying malice: “I’m no judge of literature.”
“Perhaps not,” Adela said, “though Ithink it’s more a question of general sensitiveness. Hugh, did you notice how the Parry talked of significance? Why, no one with a really adult mind could possibly — O, good-bye, Pauline; I may see you tomorrow.” Her voice passed away, accompanied by Hugh’s temporary and lazy silence, and Pauline was left to Myrtle’s monologues on the comforting friendliness of sunsets.
Even that had to stop when they reached the Foxes’ hole. Myrtle, in a spasm of friendship for Messias, frequently called it that. As they parted upon the easy joke, Pauline felt the rest of the sentence pierce her. She took it to her with a sincerity of pain which almost excused the annexation-“the Son of Man hath not. where to lay his head.” It was the cry of her loneliness and fear, and itmeant nothing to her mind but the empty streets and that fear itself. She went on.
Not to think; to think of something else. If she could. It was so hopeless. She was trying not to look ahead for fear she saw it, and also to look ahead for fear she was yielding to fear. She walked down the road quickly and firmly, remembering the many thousand times it had not come. But the visitation was increasing-growing nearer and clearer and more frequent. In her first twenty-four years she had seen it nine times; at first she had tried to speak of it. She had been told, when she was small, not to be silly and not to be naughty. Once, when she was adolescent, she had actually told her mother. Her mother was understanding in most things, and knew it. But at this the understanding had disappeared. Her eyes had become as sharp as when her husband, bybreaking his arm, had spoiled a holiday in Spain which she —“for all their sakes”— had planned. She had refused to speak any more to Pauline that day, and neither of them had ever quite forgiven the other. But in those days the comings — as she still called them — had been rare; since her parents had died and she had been sent to live with and look after her grandmother in Battle Hill they had been more frequent, as if the Hillwas fortunate and favourable to apparitions beyond men; a haunt of alien life. There had been nine in two years, as many as in all the years before. She could not speak of it to her grandmother, who was too old, nor to anyone else, since she had never discovered any closeness of friendship. But what would happen when the thing that was she came up to her, and spoke or touched? So far it had always turned aside, down some turning, or even apparently into some house; she might have been deceived were it not for the chill in her blood. But if some day it did not. . . .
A maid came out of a house a little farther down a road, and crossed the pavement to a pillar-box. Pauline, in the first glance, felt the sickness at her heart. Relieved, she reacted into the admission that she was only twenty-three houses away from her home. She knew every one of them; she had not avoided so much measurement of danger. it had never appeared to her indoors; not even on the Hill, which seemed to be so convenient for it. Sometimes she longed always to stay indoors; it could not be done, nor would she do it. She drove herself out, but the front door was still a goal and a protection. She always seemed to herself to crouch and cling before she left it, coveting the peace which everyonebut she had . . . twenty-one, twenty. . . . She would not run; she would not keep her eyes on the pavement. She would walk steadily forward, head up and eyes before her . . . seventeen, sixteen. . . . She would think of something, of Peter Stanhope’s play-“a terrible good”. The whole world was for her a canvas printed with unreal figures, a curtain apt to roll up at any moment on one real figure. But this afternoon, under the stress of the verse, and then under the shock of Stanhope’s energetic speech, shehad fractionally wondered: a play — was there a play? a play even that was known by some? and then not without peace . . . ten, nine . . . the Magus Zoroaster; perhaps Zoroaster had not been frightened. Perhaps if any of the great — if Caesar had met hisown shape in Rome, or even Shelley. . . . . was there any tale of any who had? . . . six, five, four. . . .
Her heart sprang; there, a good way off-thanks to a merciful God — it was, materialized from nowhere in a moment. She knew it at once, however far,her own young figure, her own walk, her own dress and hat-had not her first sight of it been attracted so? changing, growing. . . . It was coming up at her pace — doppelgaenger,doppelgaenger — her control began to give . . . two . . . she didn’t run, lestit should, nor did it. She reached her gate, slipped through, went up the path. If it should be running very fast up the road behind her now? She was biting back the scream and fumbling for her key. Quiet, quiet! “A terrible good.” She got the key into the keyhole; she would not look back; would it click the gate or not? The door opened; and she was in, and the door banged behind her. She all but leant against it, only the doppelgaenger might be leaning similarly on the other side. She went forward, her hand at her throat, up the stairs to her room, desiring (and every atom of energy left denying that her desire could be vain) that there should be left to her still this one refuge in which she might find shelter.
Mrs. Parry and her immediate circle, among whom Adela Hunt was determinedly present, had come, during Pauline’s private meditations, to several minor decisions, one of which was to ask Lawrence Wentworth to help with the costumes, especially the costumes of the Grand Ducal Court and Guard. Adela had said immediately that she would call on Mr. Wentworth at once, and Mrs. Parry, with a brief discontent, had agreed. While, therefore, Pauline was escaping from her ghostly twin, Adela and Hugh went pleasantly along otherroads of the Hill to Wentworth’s house.
It stood not very far from the Manor House, a little lower than that but still near to the rounded summit of the rise of ground which had given the place half its name. Lawrence Wentworth’s tenancy was peculiarly suitable to the other half, for his intellectual concern was with the history of battle, and battles had continually broken over the Hill. Their reality had not been quite so neat as the diagrams into which he abstracted and geometricized them. The black lines and squares had swayed and shifted and been broken; the crimson curves, which had lain bloody under the moon, had been a mass of continuous tiny movement, a mass noisy with moans and screams. The Hill’s chronicle of anguish had been due, in temporalities, to its strategic situation in regard to London, but a dreamer might have had nightmares of a magnetic attraction habitually there deflecting the life of man into death. It had epitomized the tale of the world. Prehistoric legends, repeated in early chronicles, told of massacres by revolting Britons and roaming Saxons, mornings and evenings of hardly-human sport. Later, when permanent civilization arose, a medieval fortalice had been built, and a score of civil feuds and pretended loyalties had worn themselves out around it under kings who, though they were called Stephen or John, were as remote as Shalmanezer or Jeroboam. The Roses had twined there, their roots living on the blood shed by their thorns; the castle had gone up one night in fire, as did Rome, and the Manor House that followed had been raised in the midst of another order. A new kind of human civility entered; as consequence or cause of which, this Hill of skulls seemed to become either weary or fastidious. In the village that had stood at the bottom of the rise a peasant farmer, moved by some wandering gospeller, had, under Mary Tudor, grown obstinately metaphysical, and fire had been lit between houses and manor that he might depart through it in a roaring anguish of joy. Forty years later,under Elizabeth, the whisperinginformers had watched an outlaw, a Jesuit priest, take refuge in the manor, but when he was seized the Death of the Hill had sent him to its Type in London for more prolonged ceremonies of castration, as if it, like the menof the Renascence, seemed to involve its brutal origin in complications of religion and art. The manor had been forfeited to the Crown, but granted again to another branch of the family, so that, through all human changes, the race of owners had still owned. This endured, when afterwards it was sold to richer men, and even when Peter Stanhope had bought it back the house of his poetry remained faintly touched by the dreadful ease that was given to it by the labour and starvation of the poor.
The whole riseof ground therefore lay like a cape, a rounded headland of earth, thrust into an ocean of death. Men, the lords of that small earth, dominated it. The folklore of skies and seasons belonged to it. But if the past still lives in its own present beside our present, then the momentary later inhabitants were surrounded by a greater universe. From other periods of its time other creatures could crawl out of death, and invisibly contemplate the houses and people of the rise. The amphibia of the past dwelt about,and sometimes crawled out on, the slope of this world, awaiting the hour when they should either retire to their own mists or more fully invade the place of the living.
There had been, while the workmen had been creating the houses of the new estate, an incident which renewed the habit of the Hill, as if that magnetism of death was quick to touch first the more unfortunate of mortals. The national margin of unemployment had been reduced by the new engagement of labourers, and from the work’s point of view reduced, in one instance, unwisely. A certain unskilled assistant had been carelessly taken on; he was hungry, he was ill, he was clumsy and slow. His name no one troubled to know. He shambled among the rest, their humorous butt. He was used to that; all his life he had been the butt of the world, generally of an unkind world. He had been repeatedly flung into the gutter by the turn of a hand in New York or Paris, and had been always trying to scramble out of it again. He had lost his early habit of complaining, and it only added to his passive wretchedness that his wife kept hers. She made what money she could by charing, at the market price, with Christmas Day, St. Stephen, and such feasts deducted, and since she usually kept her jobs, she could reasonablyenjoy her one luxury of nagging her husband because he lost his. His life seemed to him an endless gutter down which ran an endless voice. The clerk of the works and his foreman agreed that he was no good.
An accidental inspection by one of the directors decided his discharge. They were not unkind; they paid him, and gave him an extra shilling to get a bus some way backtowards London. The clerk added another shilling and the foreman sixpence. They told him to go; he was, on the whole, a nuisance. He went;that night he returned.
He went, towards the buses a mile off, tramping blindly away through the lanes, coughing and sick. He saw before him the straight gutter, driven direct to London across the lanes and fields. At its long end was a miserable room thathad a perpetual shrill voice.
He longed to avoid them, and as if the Hill bade him a placable farewell there came to him as he left it a quiet thought. He could simply reject the room and its voice; he could simply stop walking down the gutter. A fancy ofit had grown in him once or twice before. Then it had been a fancy of a difficult act; now the act had suddenly become simple.
Automatically eating a piece of bread that one of the men had given him, he sat down by the roadside, looking round him to findthe easiest way to what had suddenly become a resolve. Soft and pitiless the country stretched away round him, unwilling that he should die. He considered. There were brooks; he knew it was impossible for him to hold himself down in them while he drowned.There were motors, cars, or buses; apart from his unwillingness to get other people into trouble, he feared lest he should be merely hurt or maimed. He wanted to get himself completely out of trouble. There were the half-finished buildings away behind him.A magical and ghostly finger touched his mind; in one of those buildings he remembered to have seen a rope. In a dim way, as he sat gnawing his bread, he felt that this was the last trouble he would give to his fellows. Their care this time would be as hasty and negligent as ever, but it would be final. If the rope were not there, he would find some other way, but he hoped for the best. He even believed in that best.
He got up, sometime in the early evening, and began to plod back. It was not far and hewas not old. In covering the short distance he covered age also, toiling doubly through space and time. The Republic, of which he knew nothing, had betrayed him; all the nourishment that comes from friendship and common pain was as much forbidden to him asthe poor nourishment of his body. The Republic had decided that it was better one man, or many men, should perish, than the people in the dangerous chance of helping those many. It had, as always, denied supernatural justice. He went on, in that public but unspectacular abandonment, and the sun went down on him.
Under the moon he came on the Hill to a place which might have been an overthrown rather than an arising city. The chaos of that revolution which the Republic naturally refused had rolled over it,or some greater disaster, the Vesuvian terror ofPompeii, or an invisible lava of celestial anger, as that which smote Thebes, or the self-adoring Cities of the Plain. Unfinished walls, unfilled pits, roofless houses, gaping holes where doors and windows were to be or had been spread before him. His body was shaking, but he went on. Here and there a ladder stretched upward; here and there a brazier burned. An occasional footstep sounded. The cold moon lit up the skeletons of houses, and red fires flickeredrarely among them. He paused for a moment at the edge of the town, but not in doubt, only to listen if a watchman were near. From mere physical stress he whimpered a little now and then, but he did not change his purpose, nor did the universe invite him tochange. It accepted the choice; no more preventing him than it prevents a child playing with fire or a fool destroying his love. It has not our kindness or our decency; if it is good, its goodness is of another kind than ours. It allowed him, moving fromshadow to shadow, cautious and rash, to approach the house where he remembered to have seen the rope. All the. afternoon the rope had been visible to his eyes. He knew exactly where it was; and there indeed it was. He slunk in and touched it, shivering andsenseless but for the simple sense of life. The air of that infected place suffered his inhalations and filled his lungs as he dragged the rope, gently and softly towards the nearest ladder beyond. The ladder frightened him, lest it should be too much boarded, or else, bone-white in the moon, should, while he climbed, expose his yet living body to those universals who would have him live. But it was open for him, and he crouched within the lower shell of a room, holding the rope, peering, listening, waiting for he did not guess what until it came. He thought once he heard hurrying feet at a distance, but they were going from him, and presently all was again quiet. The moonlight gently faded; the white rungs grew shadowy; a cloud passed over the sky, and allwas obscured. The heavens were kind, and the moon did not, like the sun, wait for a divine sacrifice in order to be darkened. A man served it as well. He rose, and slipped to the foot of his ladder. He went softly up, as the Jesuit priest had gone up histhose centuries earlier paying for a loftier cause by a longer catastrophe. He went up as if he mounted on the bones of his body built so carefully for this; he clambered through his skeleton to the place of his skull, and receded, as if almost in a corporeal ingression, to the place of propinquent death. He went up his skeleton, past the skeleton frames of the ground floor, of the first floor. At the second the poles of the scaffold stretched upward into the sky. The roof was not on, nor his life built up.He dragged himself dizzily on to the topmost landing, pulling the rope after him, and there his crouching mind stayed. The cloud passed from the moon; another was floating up. His flesh, in which only his spirit now lived, was aware of the light. He stillhoped for his best; he lay still.
Presently he peered over. The world allowed him to be capable and efficient at last; no one had seen him. The long gutter of his process was now coiled up into the rope he held; the room with its voice was away in andlooked on him from the silent moon. He breathed, and a cloud floated over it again. There was nothing more to happen; everything had already happened except for one trifle which would be over soon. He tiptoed to the scaffold pole on his right hand, uncoiling the rope as he went; he pulled and gently shook it. It was slender, but it seemed strong. He took one end of the rope, began to fasten it to the end of the pole, and suddenly hesitated. It was a long rope; suppose it was too long, so that when he jumpedhe fell to the ground, not dead but broken. Then all those people more fortunate than he, who had governed him and shoved him into the gutter, would come to him again — he could hear a footstep or two of theirs upon the ground now, and lay still while they sounded and ceased — they would come to him and mind him and turn him out again, down a miry path under a perpetual talking moon that knew no wane. This was his one chance, for ever and ever, of avoiding them. He knew he must not miss it.
He measured outthe rope to twice the length of his outstretched arms, and when the ruined city was once more silent he peered over, letting that measured section run through his hands. The end dangled much more than his height from the ground, and at that he twisted andknotted the next yard or two around the pole, straining against it, tugging it, making certain it could not ease loose. The moon emerged as he finished, and in a panic he dragged up the loose end, and shrank back from the edge, well back, so that no watcher should see him from the road. There, lying flat on his empty belly, he began his penultimate activity. He knotted, as best he could, the end of the rope about his neck, with a great and clumsy, but effective, slip knot. He tried it again and again, morefearful than ever lest its failure, because of his own, should betray him back into a life which his frenzy felt as already ghostly. He felt that he could not bear that last betrayal, for he would never have courage to repeat this mighty act of decision.The dreadful universe perhaps would spare him that, if he were careful now. He was very careful.
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