Shadows of Ecstasy - Charles Williams - ebook

Shadows of Ecstasy ebook

Charles Williams



The plot of Shadows of Ecstasy is based on the fact that the madman decided to destroy Western civilization. The author could easily punish such a madman. However, as in many of his stories, a person receives forgiveness from God. The plot of the novel is tense, supporters of paganism are trying to protect their world.

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Liczba stron: 361

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Roger Ingram’s peroration broke over the silent dining hall: “He and such as he are one with the great conquerors, the great scientists, the great poets; they have all of them cried of the unknown: ‘I will encounter darkness as a bride, And hug it in mine arms’.”

He sat down amid applause, directed not to him but to the subject of his speech. It was at a dinner given by the Geographical Faculty of the University of London to a distinguished explorer just back from South America. The explorer’s health had been proposed by the Dean of the Faculty, and the Professor of Tropical Geography had been intended to second it. Unfortunately the Professor had gone down with influenza that very day, and Roger had been hastily made to take his place. The other geographical professors, though vocationally more suitable, were both learned and low-voiced, as also were their public addresses. The Dean had refused to subject his distinguished guests, including the explorer, to their instructive whispers. Roger might not be a geographer, but he could make a better speech, and he belonged to the University if to a different faculty, being Professor of Applied Literature. This was a new Chair, endowed beneficently by a rich Canadian who desired at once to benefit the Mother Country and to recall her from the by-ways of pure art to the highroad of art as related to action. Roger had been invited from a post in a Northern University to fill the Chair, largely on the strength of his last book, which was called “Persuasive Serpents: studies in English Criticism”, and had been read with admiration by twenty-seven persons and with complete misunderstanding by four hundred and eighty-two. Its theme, briefly, was that most English critics had at all times been wholly and entirely wrong in their methods and aims, and that criticism was an almost undiscovered art, being a final austere harmony produced by the purification of literature from everything alien, which must still exist in the subjects of most prose and poetry. However, the salary of the Chair of Applied Literature had decided him to give an example of it in his own person, and he had accepted.

He lent an ear, when the toast had been drunk, to his wife’s “Beautiful, Roger: he loved it”, and to Sir Bernard Travers’ murmured “Hug?”

“I know,” he said; “you wouldn’t hug it. You’d ask it to a light but good dinner and send it away all pale and comfortable. I was good, wasn’t I, Isabel? A little purple, but pleasing purple. Pleasing purple for pleased people–that’s me after dinner.” He composed himself to listen.

The explorer, returning thanks, was not indisposed to accept literally the compliments which had been offered him. He touched on ordinary lives, on the conditions of ordinary lives, on the ordinary office clerk, and on the difference between such a man and himself. He painted a picture of South America in black and scarlet; Roger remarked to his wife in a whisper that crude scarlet was the worst colour to put beside rich purple. He enlarged on the heroism of his companions with an under-lying suggestion that it was largely maintained by his own. He made a joke at the expense of Roger’s quotation, saying that he would never apply “for a divorce or even a judicial separation from the bride Mr. Ingram has found me.” Roger gnashed his teeth and smiled back politely, muttering “He isn’t worth Macaulay and I gave him Shakespeare.” He would, in short, have been a bore, had he not been himself.

At last he sat down. Sir Bernard, politely applauding, said: “Roger, why are the English no good at oratory?”

“Because–to do the fool justice–they prefer to explore,” Roger said. “You can’t be a poet and an orator too: it needs a different kind of consciousness.”

Sir Bernard left off applauding; he said: “Roger why are the English so good at oratory?”

“No,” Roger said, “anything in reason, but not that. They aren’t, you know.”

“Need that prevent you finding a reason why they are?” Sir Bernard asked.

“Certainly not,” Roger answered, “but it’d prevent you believing it. I wish I were making all the speeches to-night; I’m going to be bored. Isabel, shall we go?”

“Rather not,” Isabel said. “They’re going to propose the health of the guests. I’m a guest. Mr. Nigel Considine will reply. Who’s Mr. Nigel Considine?”

“A rich man, that’s all I know,” said her husband. “He gave a collection of African images to the anthropological school, and endowed a lectureship on –what was it?–on Ritual Transmutations of Energy. As a matter of fact, I fancy there was some trouble about it, because he wanted one man in it and the University wanted another. They didn’t know anything about his man.”

“And what did they know of their own?” Sir Bernard put in.

“They knew he’d been at Birmingham or Leeds or somewhere–all quite proper,” Roger answered, “and had written a book on the marriage rites of the indigenous Caribs or some such people. He wasn’t married himself, and he’d never been a Carib–at least not so far as was known. Considine’s man was a native of Africa, so the Dean was afraid he might start ritually transmuting energy in the lecture-room.”

“Was Mr. Considine annoyed?” Isabel asked.

“Apparently not, as he’s here to-night,” Roger answered. “Unless he’s going to get his own back now. But I never met him, and never got nearer to him than his collection of images.” His voice became more serious, “They were frightfully impressive.”

“The adjective being emphatic or colloquial?” Sir Bernard asked, and was interrupted by the health of the guests. He was a little startled to find that he himself was still considered important enough to be mentioned by name in the speech that proposed it. He had, in fact, been a distinguished figure in the medical world of his day: he had written a book on the digestive organs which had become a classic, in spite of the ironic humour with which he always spoke of it. He had attended the stomachs of High Personages, and had retired from active life only the year before, after accepting a knighthood with an equally serious irony.

Mr. Nigel Considine, on behalf of the guests, thanked their hosts. The chief of those guests, the guest of honour, of honour in actual truth, had already spoken. The intellectual value of the journey which they had celebrated was certainly very high, and very valuable to the scientific knowledge of the world which was so rapidly growing. “Yet,” the full voice went on, “yet, if I hesitated at all at the view which the most prominent guest to-night took of his own fine achievement”–Roger’s eyes flashed up and down again–“it would have been over one implication which he seemed to make. He set before us the wonder and terror of those remote parts of the world which he has been instrumental in helping to map out. Birds and beasts, trees and flowers, all kinds of non-human life, he admirably described. But the human life he appeared to regard as negligible. There is, it seems, nothing for us of Europe to learn from them, except perhaps how to starve on a few roots or to weave boughs into a shelter. It may be so. But I think we should not be too certain of it. He spoke of some of these peoples as being like children; he will pardon me if I dreamed of an old man wandering among children. For the children are growing, and the old man is dying. We who are here to-night are here as the servants and the guests of a great University, a University of knowledge, scholarship, and intellect. You do well to be proud of it. But I have wondered whether there may not be colleges and faculties of other experiences than yours, and whether even now in the far corners of other continents powers not yours are being brought to fruition. I have myself been something of a traveller, and every time I return to England I wonder whether the games of those children do not hold a more intense life than the talk of your learned men–a more intense passion for discovery, a greater power of exploration, new raptures, unknown paths of glorious knowledge; whether you may not yet sit at the feet of the natives of the Amazon or the Zambesi: whether the fakirs, the herdsmen, the witch-doctors may not enter the kingdom of man before you. But, however this may be, it is not–” He turned gracefully to renewed thanks and compliments, and sat down.

“Dotty,” said Roger, “but unusual. The transmutation of energy must have been biting him pretty badly. I suppose all that was a get-back.”

“It sounded awfully thrilling,” Isabel said. “What did he mean?”

“My good child, how should I know?” her husband asked plaintively. “The witch-doctors may. Fancy a witch-doctor entering the kingdom of man before Sir Bernard! Rude of him. Sir Bernard, what did you think of it?”

Sir Bernard turned thoughtful eyes on Roger. “I can’t remember,” he said, “where I’ve seen your Mr. Considine before.”

“Perhaps you haven’t,” Roger answered, “in which case you naturally wouldn’t remember.”

“O but I have,” Sir Bernard said positively. “I have; just lately. I remember the way he curved his fingers. I can’t think where.”

“An unknown path of glorious knowledge,” Isabel murmured. “The Dean of Geography looks quite annoyed.”

“He’s thinking of the other things that are being brought to fruition,” Roger said, “all about South America. And of the old man who is dying. D’you think Considine meant any one special? or just as a whole?”

“I don’t think it was very nice of him,” Isabel said. “People might take it the wrong way.”

“Well, if you know how to take it the right way...” her husband protested. “I suppose he meant something? O heavens, they’re beginning again.”

They were, but also they were approaching the end. The dinner hovered over the point at which empty chairs begin to appear, and people misjudge their moment and tiptoe out at the beginning of a speech, and others reckon the chances of catching their distant friends before they are gone. At this point every dinner contends with destiny, and if it is fortunate concludes in a rapid and ecstatic climax; if it is unfortunate it drags out a lingering death, and enters afterwards a shuddering oblivion. This dinner was fortunate. The National Anthem implored Deity on behalf of royalty, and dismissed many incredulous of both. Sir Bernard accompanied Isabel from the room. Ingram, buttonholed by a colleague or two, was delayed till most of those present had gone, and when he reached the cloak-room counter, he found it, but for himself, deserted. He was waiting a little impatiently for his things when a voice behind him spoke. “And with what passion, Mr. Ingram,” it said, “do you yourself encounter darkness?”

Roger turned and saw Nigel Considine. They had been some distance apart at the dinner, and on the same side of the same table, so that Considine’s personality had not been in play except through his rather obscure words. Now, as they stood so near, Roger was surprised to find himself taken aback by the other’s face and bearing. He was not as a rule easily impressed by those he met; he had far too good an opinion of himself. But here... He saw a man of apparently about fifty, tall, well-proportioned, clean-shaven, with a good forehead and a good chin. But it was neither forehead nor chin that held Ingram; it was the eyes. He thought of the word “smouldering,” and almost as quickly cursed himself for thinking of it; it was such a hateful word, only it was the most accurate. Something, repressed and controlled but vivid, was living in them; they corresponded, in their flickering intensity, to a voice that vibrated with some similar controlled ardour. The word “darkness” as it was uttered called to him as it did in the lines he had quoted; he felt as if he were looking at the thing itself. He began to speak, stammered on a syllable, and at last said helplessly: “I? darkness?”

“You spoke of it familiarly,” the other said. “You used her language.”

Roger pulled himself together; he answered with a slight hostility. “If you mean my one Shakespearean quotation–”

“Isn’t that just darkness making itself known?” Considine asked. “Or do you use apposite quotation merely as a social convenience?”

Roger felt ridiculously helpless, as if a believer accustomed to infidels were suddenly confronted by a fanatic of his own creed. But the implied sneer stung him, and he said sharply, “I don’t quote.”

“I believe that–because of your voice,” the other answered. “You must forgive me if I was offensive; could I help wondering if you really made that rapturous cry your own?”

He allowed the attendant to help him on with his coat as he spoke. Roger’s own things lay neglected on the counter, and the other attendant waited by them. Roger himself was absurdly conscious of the presence of those two auditors. He had often talked highly in similar circumstances before, not theatrically certainly but with a sardonic consciousness that the subservient listeners probably thought him a little mad, with the slight enjoyment of being too much for them, with an equally slight but equally definite and continuous despair that words which meant so much to him meant so little to others. But Considine was speaking perfectly naturally, only always with that sounding depth of significance in his voice.

“I am glad you liked it,” Roger said foolishly.

Considine said nothing at all to this, and Roger became instantly conscious of the fatuity of the words. “Rapturous cry”... “glad you liked it.” Ass! “No, really,” he said very hastily, “I mean... I did really mean it. I mean I do like poetry. Good God!” he thought to himself, “if my classes could hear me now.”

Hatted and gloved, Considine turned to him. “You are a little afraid of it, I think,” he said. “Or else you have spoken your beliefs very little.”

“Nobody cares about it,” Roger said, “and I mock at myself, God forgive me, because there’s nothing else to do.”

They were moving together out of the cloakroom.

“There’s much else to do,” Considine answered, “and I think you believe that; I think you dare encounter darkness.”

He raised his hand in salutation. Isabel was ready waiting with Sir Bernard, but before he joined them Roger stood still watching Considine going towards the door, and when at last he came to them he was still troubled.

“Darling, what’s the matter?” Isabel said. “You’re looking very gloomy.”

“Mr. Considine’s been talking of the fakirs,” Sir Bernard said, “and Roger’s wondering if he’s one.”

Roger regarded them for a moment and then made an effort to recover himself. “I don’t mind telling you,” he answered, “that Mr. Considine has played me entirely off my own stage in my own play, and I didn’t think there was a man living who could do that.”

“Elucidate,” Sir Bernard said.

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