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Title: Et in Sempiternum Pereant
Author: Charles Williams
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0800821.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: August 2008
Date most recently updated: August 2008

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Title: Et in Sempiternum Pereant
Author: Charles Williams

[From: "The London Mercury", 1935]



Lord Arglay came easily down the road. About him the spring was as gaudy
as the restraint imposed by English geography ever lets it be. The last
village lay a couple of miles behind him; as far in front, he had been
told, was a main road on which he could meet a motor bus to carry him
near his destination. A casual conversation in a club had revealed to
him, some months before, that in a country house of England there were
supposed to lie a few yet unpublished legal opinions of the Lord
Chancellor Bacon. Lord Arglay, being no longer Chief justice, and having
finished and published his _History of Organic Law_, had conceived that
the editing of these papers might provide a pleasant variation upon his
present business of studying the more complex parts of the Christian
Schoolmen. He had taken advantage of a week-end spent in the
neighbourhood to arrange, by the good will of the owner, a visit of
inspection; since, as the owner had remarked, with a bitterness due to
his financial problems, 'everything that is smoked isn't Bacon.' Lord
Arglay had smiled--it hurt him a little to think that he had smiled--and
said, which was true enough, that Bacon himself would not have made a
better joke.

It was a very deserted part of the country through which he was walking.
He had been careful to follow the directions given him, and in fact there
were only two places where he could possibly have gone wrong, and at both
of them Lord Arglay was certain he had not gone wrong. But he seemed to
be taking a long time--a longer time than he had expected. He looked at
his watch again, and noted with sharp disapproval of his own judgment
that it was only six minutes since he had looked at it last. It had
seemed more like sixteen. Lord Arglay frowned. He was usually a good
walker, and on that morning he was not conscious of any unusual
weariness. His host had offered to send him in a car, but he had
declined. For a moment, as he put his watch back, he was almost sorry he
had declined. A car would have made short time of this road, and at
present his legs seemed to be making rather long time of it. 'Or,' Lord
Arglay said aloud, 'making time rather long.' He played a little, as he
went on, with the fancy that every road in space had a corresponding
measure in time; that it tended, merely of itself, to hasten or delay all
those that drove or walked upon it. The nature of some roads, quite apart
from their material effectiveness, might urge men to speed, and of others
to delay. So that the intentions of all travellers were counterpointed
continually by the media they used. The courts, he thought, might
reasonably take that into consideration in case of offences against right
speed, and a man who accelerated upon one road would be held to have
acted under the improper influence of the way, whereas one who did the
same on another would be known to have defied and conquered the way.

Lord Arglay just stopped himself looking at his watch again. It was
impossible that it should be more than five minutes since he had last
done so. He looked back to observe, if possible, how far he had since
come. It was not possible; the road narrowed and curved too much. There
was a cloud of trees high up behind him; it must have been half an hour
ago that he passed through it, yet it was not merely still in sight, but
the trees themselves were in sight. He could remark them as trees; he
could almost, if he were a little careful, count them. He thought, with
some irritation, that he must be getting old more quickly, and more
unnoticeably, than he had supposed. He did not much mind about the
quickness, but he did mind about the unnoticeableness. It had given him
pleasure to watch the various changes which age tended to bring; to be as
stealthy and as quick to observe those changes as they were to come upon
him--the slower pace, the more meditative voice, the greater reluctance
to decide, the inclination to fall back on habit, the desire for the
familiar which is the first skirmishing approach of unfamiliar death. He
neither welcomed nor grudged such changes; he only observed them with a
perpetual interest in the curious nature of the creation. The fantasy of
growing old, like the fantasy of growing up, was part of the ineffable
sweetness, touched with horror, of existence, itself the lordliest
fantasy of all. But now, as he stood looking back over and across the
hidden curves of the road, he felt suddenly that time had outmarched and
out-twisted him, that it was spreading along the countryside and doubling
back on him, so that it troubled and deceived his judgment. In an
unexpected and unusual spasm of irritation he put his hand to his watch
again. He felt as if it were a quarter of an hour since he had looked at
it; very well, making just allowance for his state of impatience, he
would expect the actual time to be five minutes. He looked; it was only
two.

Lord Arglay made a small mental effort, and almost immediately recognized
the effort. He said to himself: 'This is another mark of age. I am losing
my sense of duration.' He said also: 'It is becoming an effort to
recognize these changes.' Age was certainly quickening its work in him.
It approached him now doubly; not only his method of experience, but his
awareness of experience was attacked. His knowledge of it comforted
him--perhaps, he thought, for the last time. The knowledge would go. He
would savour it then while he could. Still looking back at the trees, 'It
seems I'm decaying,' Lord Arglay said aloud.  'And that anyhow is one up
against decay. Am I procrastinating? I am, and in the circumstances
procrastination is a proper and pretty game. It is the thief of time, and
quite right too! Why should time have it all its own way?' He turned to
the road again, and went on. It passed now between open fields; in all
those fields he could see no one. It was pasture, but there were no
beasts. There was about him a kind of void, in which he moved, hampered
by this growing oppression of duration. Things _lasted_. He had
exclaimed, in his time, against the too swift passage of the world. This
was a new experience; it was lastingness--almost, he could have believed,
everlastingness. The measure of it was but his breathing, and his
breathing, as it grew slower and heavier, would become the measure of
everlasting labour--the labour of Sisyphus, who pushed his own slow heart
through each infinite moment, and relaxed but to let it beat back and so
again begin. It was the first touch of something Arglay had never yet
known, of simple and perfect despair.

At that moment he saw the house. The road before him curved sharply, and
as he looked he wondered at the sweep of the curve; it seemed to make a
full half-circle and so turn back in the direction that he had come. At
the farthest point there lay before him, tangentially, another path. The
sparse hedge was broken by an opening which was more than footpath and
less than road. It was narrow, even when compared with the narrowing way
by which he had come, yet hard and beaten as if by the passage of many
feet. There had been innumerable travellers, and all solitary, all on
foot. No cars or carts could have taken that path; if there had been
burdens, they had been carried on the shoulders of their owners. It ran
for no long distance, no more than in happier surroundings might have
been a garden path from gate to door. There, at the end, was the door.

Arglay, at the time, took all this in but half-consciously. His attention
was not on the door but on the chimney. The chimney, in the ordinary
phrase, was smoking. It was smoking effectively and continuously. A
narrow and dense pillar of dusk poured up from it, through which there
glowed every now and then, a deeper undershade of crimson, as if some
trapped genius almost thrust itself out of the moving prison that held
it. The house itself was not much more than a cottage. There was a door,
shut; on the left of it a window, also shut; above, two little attic
windows, shut, and covered within by some sort of dark hanging, or
perhaps made opaque by smoke that filled the room. There was no sign of
life anywhere, and the smoke continued to mount to the lifeless sky. It
seemed to Arglay curious that he had not noticed this grey pillar in his
approach, that only now when he stood almost in the straight and narrow
path leading to the house did it become visible, an exposition of tall
darkness reserved to the solitary walkers upon that wearying road.

Lord Arglay was the last person in the world to look for
responsibilities. He shunned them by a courteous habit; a responsibility
had to present itself with a delicate emphasis before he acceded to it.
But when any so impressed itself he was courteous in accepting as in
declining; he sought friendship with necessity, and as young lovers call
their love fatal, so he turned fatality of life into his love. It seemed
to him, as he stood and gazed at the path, the shut door, the smoking
chimney, that here perhaps was a responsibility being delicately
emphatic. If everyone was out--if the cottage had been left for an
hour--ought he to do something? Of course, they might be busy about it
within; in which case a thrusting stranger would be inopportune. Another
glow of crimson in the pillar of cloud decided him. He went up the path.

As he went he glanced at the little window, but it was bluffed by dirt;
he could not very well see whether the panes did or did not hide smoke
within. When he was so near the threshold that the window had almost
passed out of his vision, he thought he saw a face looking out of it--at
the extreme edge, nearest the door--and he checked himself, and went back
a step to look again. It had been only along the side of his glance that
the face, if face it were, had appeared, a kind of sudden white scrawl
against the blur, as if it were a mask hung by the window rather than any
living person, or as if the glass of the window itself had looked
sideways at him, and he had caught the look without understanding its
cause. When he stepped back, he could see no face. Had there been a sun
in the sky he would have attributed the apparition to a trick of the
light, but in the sky over this smoking house there was no sun. It had
shone brightly that morning when he started; it had paled and faded and
finally been lost to him as he had passed along his road. There was
neither sun nor peering face. He stepped back to the threshold, and
knocked with his knuckles on the door.

There was no answer. He knocked again and again waited, and as he stood
there he began to feel annoyed. The balance of Lord Arglay's mind had not
been achieved without the creation of a considerable counter-energy to
the violence of Lord Arglay's natural temper. There had been people whom
he had once come very near hating, hating with a fury of selfish rage and
detestation; for instance, his brother-in-law. His brother-in-law had not
been a nice man; Lord Arglay, as he stood by the door and, for no earthly
reason, remembered him, admitted it. He admitted, at the same moment,
that no lack of niceness on that other's part could excuse any indulgence
of vindictive hate on his own, nor could he think why, then and there, he
wanted him, wanted to have him merely to hate. His brother-in-law was
dead. Lord Arglay almost regretted it. Almost he desired to follow, to be
with him, to provoke and torment him, to...

Lord Arglay struck the door again. 'There is,' he said to himself,
'entire clarity in the Omnipotence.' It was his habit of devotion, his
means of recalling himself into peace out of the angers, greeds, sloths
and perversities that still too often possessed him. It operated; the
temptation passed into the benediction of the Omnipotence and
disappeared. But there was still no answer from within. Lord Arglay laid
his hand on the latch. He swung the door, and, lifting his hat with his
other hand, looked into the room--a room empty of smoke as of fire, and
of all as of both.

Its size and appearance were those of a rather poor cottage, rather
indeed a large brick hut than a cottage. It seemed much smaller within
than without. There was a fireplace--at least, there was a place for a
fire--on his left. Opposite the door, against the right-hand wall, there
was a ramshackle flight of wooden steps, going up to the attics, and at
its foot, swinging on a broken hinge, a door which gave a way presumably
to a cellar. Vaguely, Arglay found himself surprised; he had not supposed
that a dwelling of this sort would have a cellar. Indeed, from where he
stood, he could not be certain. It might only be a cupboard. But,
unwarrantably, it seemed more, a hinted unseen depth, as if the slow
slight movement of the broken wooden door measured that labour of
Sisyphus, as if the road ran past him and went coiling spirally into the
darkness of the cellar. In the room there was no furniture, neither
fragment of paper nor broken bit of wood; there was no sign of life, no
flame in the grate nor drift of smoke in the air. It was completely and
utterly void.

Lord Arglay looked at it. He went back a few steps and looked up again at
the chimney. Undoubtedly the chimney was smoking. It was received into a
pillar of smoke; there was no clear point where the dark chimney ended
and the dark smoke began. House leaned to roof, roof to chimney, chimney
to smoke, and smoke went up for ever and ever over those roads where men
crawled infinitely through the smallest measurements of time. Arglay
returned to the door, crossed the threshold, and stood in the room. Empty
of flame, empty of flame's material, holding within its dank air the very
opposite of flame, the chill of ancient years, the room lay round him.
Lord Arglay contemplated it. 'There's no smoke without fire,' he said
aloud. 'Only apparently there is. Thus one lives and learns. Unless
indeed this is the place where one lives without learning.'

The phrase, leaving his lips, sounded oddly about the walls and in the
corners of the room. He was suddenly revolted by his own chance words--'a
place where one lives without learning', where no courtesy or integrity
could any more be fined or clarified. The echo daunted him; he made a
sharp movement, he took a step aside towards the stairs, and before the
movement was complete, was aware of a change. The dank chill became a
concentration of dank and deadly heat, pricking at him, entering his
nostrils and his mouth. The fantasy of life without knowledge
materialized, inimical, in the air, life without knowledge, corrupting
life without knowledge, jungle and less than jungle, and though still the
walls of the bleak chamber met his eyes, a shell of existence, it seemed
that life, withdrawn from all those normal habits of which the useless
memory was still drearily sustained by the thin phenomenal fabric, was
collecting and corrupting in the atmosphere behind the door he had so
rashly passed--outside the other door which swung crookedly at the head
of the darker hole within.

He had recoiled from the heat, but not so as to escape it. He had even
taken a step or two up the stairs, when he heard from without a soft
approach. Light feet were coming up the beaten path to the house. Some
other Good Samaritan, Arglay thought, who would be able to keep his
twopence in his pocket. For certainly, whatever was the explanation of
all this and wherever it lay, in the attics above or in the pit of the
cellar below, responsibility was gone. Lord Arglay did not conceive that
either he or anyone else need rush about the country in an anxious effort
to preserve a house which no one wanted and no one used. Prematurely
enjoying the discussion, he waited. Through the doorway someone came in.

It was, or seemed to be, a man, of ordinary height, wearing some kind of
loose dark overcoat that flapped about him. His head was bare; so,
astonishingly, were his legs and feet. At first, as he stood just inside
the door, leaning greedily forward, his face was invisible, and for a
moment Arglay hesitated to speak. Then the stranger lifted his face and
Arglay uttered a sound. It was emaciated beyond imagination; it was
astonishing, at the appalling degree of hunger revealed, that the man
could walk or move at all, or even stand as he was now doing, and turn
that dreadful skull from side to side. Arglay came down the steps of the
stair in one jump; he cried out again, he ran forward, and as he did so
the deep burning eyes in the turning face of bone met his full and halted
him. They did not see him, or if they saw did not notice; they gazed at
him and moved on. Once only in his life had Arglay seen eyes remotely
like those; once, when he had pronounced the death-sentence upon a
wretched man who had broken under the long strain of his trial and filled
the court with shrieks. Madness had glared at Lord Arglay from that dock,
but at least it had looked at him and seen him; these eyes did not. They
sought something--food, life, or perhaps only a form and something to
hate, and in that energy the stranger moved. He began to run round the
room. The bones that were his legs and feet jerked up and down. The head
turned from side to side. He ran circularly, round and again round,
crossing and recrossing, looking up, down, around, and at last, right in
the centre of the room, coming to a halt, where, as if some terrible pain
of starvation gripped him, he bent and twisted downward until he squatted
grotesquely on the floor. There, squatting and bending, he lowered his
head and raised his arm, and as the fantastic black coat slipped back,
Arglay saw a wrist, saw it marked with scars. He did not at first think
what they were; only when the face and wrist of the figure swaying in its
pain came together did he suddenly know. They were teeth-marks; they were
bites; the mouth closed on the wrist and gnawed. Arglay cried out and
sprang forward, catching the arm, trying to press it down, catching the
other shoulder, trying to press it back. He achieved nothing. He held, he
felt, he grasped; he could not control. The long limb remained raised,
the fierce teeth gnawed. But as Arglay bent, he was aware once more of
that effluvia of heat risen round him, and breaking out with the more
violence when suddenly the man, if it were man, cast his arm away, and
with a jerk of movement rose once more to his feet. His eyes, as the head
went back, burned close into Arglay's, who, what with the heat, the eyes,
and his sickness at the horror, shut his own against them, and was at the
same moment thrown from his balance by the rising form, and sent
staggering a step or two away, with upon his face the sensation of a
light hot breath, so light that only in the utter stillness of time could
it be felt, so hot that it might have been the inner fire from which the
pillar of smoke poured outward to the world.

He recovered his balance; he opened his eyes; both motions brought him
into a new corner of that world. The odd black coat the thing had worn
had disappeared, as if it had been a covering imagined by a habit of
mind. The thing itself, a wasted flicker of pallid movement, danced and
gyrated in white flame before him. Arglay saw it still, but only now as a
dreamer may hear, half-asleep and half-awake, the sound of dogs barking
or the crackling of fire in his very room. For he opened his eyes not to
such things, but to the thing that on the threshold of this place, some
seconds earlier or some years, he had felt and been pleased to feel, to
the reality of his hate. It came in a rush within him, a fountain of
fire, and without and about him images of the man he hated swept in a
thick cloud of burning smoke. The smoke burned his eyes and choked his
mouth; he clutched it, at images within it--at his greedy loves and
greedy hates--at the cloud of the sin of his life, yearning to catch but
one image and renew again the concentration for which he yearned. He
could not. The smoke blinded and stifled him, yet more than stifling or
blinding was the hunger for one true thing to lust or hate. He was
starving in the smoke, and all the hut was full of smoke, for the hut and
the world were smoke, pouring up round him, from him and all like him--a
thing once wholly, and still a little, made visible to his corporeal eyes
in forms which they recognized, but in itself of another nature. He swung
and twisted and crouched. His limbs ached from long wrestling with the
smoke, for as the journey to this place had prolonged itself infinitely,
so now, though he had no thought of measurement, the clutch of his hands
and the growing sickness that invaded him struck through him the
sensation of the passage of years and the knowledge of the passage of
moments. The fire sank within him, and the sickness grew, but the change
could not bring him nearer to any end. The end here was not at the end,
but in the beginning. There was no end to this smoke, to this fever and
this chill, to crouching and rising and searching, unless the end was
now. _Now--now_ was the only possible other fact, chance, act. He cried
out, defying infinity, '_Now!_'

Before his voice the smoke of his prison yielded, and yielded two ways at
once. From where he stood he could see in one place an alteration in that
perpetual grey, an alternate darkening and lightening as if two ways, of
descent and ascent, met. There was, he remembered, a way in, therefore a
path out; he had only to walk along it. But also there was a way still
farther in, and he could walk along that. Two doors had swung, to his
outer senses, in that small room. From every gate of hell there was a way
to heaven, yes, and in every way to heaven there was a gate to deeper
hell.

Yet for a moment he hesitated. There was no sign of the phenomenon by
which he had discerned the passage of that other spirit. He desired--very
strongly he desired--to be of use to it. He desired to offer himself to
it, to make a ladder of himself, if that should be desired, by which it
might perhaps mount from the nature of the lost, from the dereliction of
all minds that refuse living and learning, postponement and irony, whose
dwelling is necessarily in their undying and perishing selves. Slowly,
unconsciously, he moved his head as if to seek his neighbour.

He saw, at first he felt, nothing. His eyes returned to that vibrating
oblong of an imagined door, the heart of the smoke beating in the smoke.
He looked at it; he remembered the way; he was on the point of movement,
when the stinging heat struck him again, but this time from behind. It
leapt through him; he was seized in it and loosed from it; its rush
abandoned him. The torrent of its fiery passage struck the darkening
hollow in the walls. At the instant that it struck, there came a small
sound; there floated up a thin shrill pipe, too short to hear, too
certain to miss, faint and quick as from some single insect in the
hedgerow or the field, and yet more than single--a weak wail of
multitudes of the lost. The shrill lament struck his ears, and he ran. He
cried as he sprang: 'Now is God: now is glory in God,' and as the dark
door swung before him it was the threshold of the house that received his
flying feet. As he passed, another form slipped by him, slinking hastily
into the house, another of the hordes going so swiftly up that straight
way, hard with everlasting time; each driven by his own hunger, and each
alone. The vision, a face looking in as a face had looked out, was gone.
Running still, but more lightly now, and with some communion of peace at
heart, Arglay came into the curving road. The trees were all about him;
the house was at their heart. He ran on through them; beyond, he saw, he
reached, the spring day and the sun. At a little distance a motor bus,
gaudy within and without, was coming down the road. The driver saw him.
Lord Arglay instinctively made a sign, ran, mounted. As he sat down,
breathless and shaken, '_E quindi uscimmo_,' his mind said, '_a riveder
le stelle_.'



THE END



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