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Authors: Charles Williams

The greater trumps

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“One of the most gifted and influential Christian writers England has produced this century.” —Time

“[Williams has a] profound insight into Good and Evil, into the heights of Heaven and the depths of Hell, which provides both the immediate thrill, and the permanent message of his novels.” —T. S. Eliot

“Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience. It proves that one can write about the weird and fantastic in such a compelling manner as to appeal to any reader of modern novels.” —The Saturday Review of Literature

“Charles Williams took the form of the thriller and used it to create an extraordinary genre that has sometimes been called ‘spiritual shockers.' His books are immensely worth reading, even if you consider yourself unspiritual and immune to shock.” —Humphrey Carpenter, author ofThe Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends

“With a powerful imagination fed by trinitarian and incarnational faith, Charles Williams used fiction to explore how people react when the supernatural enters their lives, and how then to find the path of peace. The fantasy novels that result make a riveting read.” —J. I. Packer, theologian and author ofKnowing God

All Hallows' Eve

“The work of a gifted man and obviously the expression of devoutly held convictions … No stranger novel has crossed my path in years.” —The New York Times

“A story that makes a real word of supernatural … A tale of horror surpassing even the works of the recognized masters.” —Chicago Sunday Tribune

“A strange story … poignant beauty such as prose fiction rarely achieves. The final impression is more as if the three books of theDivine Comedyhad been compressed into one novel.” —The New York Times Book Review

Many Dimensions

“A great English believer unites the seen with the unseen in a glory and a terror that are unforgettable.” —New York Herald Tribune

“It is satire, romance, thriller, morality and glimpses of eternity all rolled into one.” —The New York Times

The Greater Trumps

A Novel

Charles Williams


















About the Author



“…PERFECT BABEL,”Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper.

“But Babel never was perfect, was it?” Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. He did not choose, because at the moment he could not think of a sufficiently short sentence. A minute afterwards it occurred to him that he might have said, “Then it's perfect now.” But it didn't matter; Nancy would only have been rude again, and her brother too. Children were. He looked at his sister, who was reading on the other side of the fire. She looked comfortable and interested, so he naturally decided to disturb her.

“And what have you been doing today, Sybil?” he asked, with an insincere goodwill, and as she looked up he thought angrily, “Her skin's getting clearer every day.”

“Why, nothing very much,” Sybil Coningsby said. “I did some shopping, and I made a cake, and went for a walk and changed the library books. And since tea I've been reading.”

“Nice day,” Mr. Coningsby answered, between a question and a sneer, wishing it hadn't been, though he was aware that if it hadn't been … but then it was certain to have been. Sybil always seemed to have nice days. He looked at his paper again. “I see the Government is putting a fresh duty on dried fruits,” he snorted.

Sybil tried to say something and failed. She was getting stupid, she thought, or (more probably) lazy. There ought to be something to say about the Government putting a duty on dried fruits. Nancy spoke instead.

“You're slow, auntie,” she said. “The correct answer is, ‘I suppose that means that the price will go up!' The reply to that is, ‘Everything goes up under this accursed Government!'”

“Will you please let me do my own talking, Nancy?” her father snapped at her.

“Then I wish you'd talk something livelier than the Dead March inSaul,” Nancy said.

“You're out of date again, Nancy,” jeered her brother. “Nobody plays that old thing nowadays.”

“Go to hell!” said Nancy.

Mr. Coningsby immediately stood up. “Nancy, you shall not use such language in this house,” he called out.

“Oh, very well,” Nancy said, walked to the window, opened it, put her head out, and said to the world, but (it annoyed her to feel) in a more subdued voice, “Go to hell.” She pulled in her head and shut the window. “There, father,” she said, “that wasn't in the house.”

Sybil Coningsby said equably, “Nancy, you're in a bad temper.”

“And suppose I am?” Nancy answered. “Who began it?”

“Don't answer your aunt back,” said Mr. Coningsby, still loudly. “She at least is a lady.”

“She's more,” said Nancy. “She's a saint. And I'm a worm and the child of …”

She abandoned the sentence too late. Her father picked up his paper, walked to the door, turned his head, uttered, “If I am wanted, Sybil, I shall be in my study,” and went out. Ralph grinned at Nancy; their aunt looked at them both with a wise irony.

“What energy!” she murmured, and Nancy looked back at her, half in anger, half in admiration.

“Doesn't fathereverannoy you, auntie?” she asked.

“No, my dear,” Miss Coningsby said.

“Don't we ever annoy you?” Nancy asked again.

“No, my dear,” Miss Coningsby said.

“Doesn't anyone ever annoy you, aunt?” Ralph took up the chant.

“Hardly at all,” Miss Coningsby said. “What extraordinary ideas you children have! Why should anyone annoy me?”

“Well, we annoy father all right,” Nancy remarked, “and I never mean to when I begin. But Ralph and I weren't making all that noise, and anyhow Babel wasn't perfect.”

Sybil Coningsby picked up her book again. “My dear Nancy, you never do begin; you just happen along,” she said, and dropped her eyes so resolutely to her page that Nancy hesitated to ask her what she meant.

The room was settling back into the quiet which had filled it before Mr. Coningsby's arrival, when the bell of the front door rang. Nancy sprang to her feet and ran into the hall. “Right, Agnes,” she sang, “I'll see to it.”

“That'll be Henry,” Ralph said as she disappeared. “Wasn't he coming to dinner?”

“Yes,” his aunt murmured without looking up. One of the things about Sybil Coningsby that occasionally annoyed other people—Ralph among them—was her capacity for saying, quite simply, “Yes” or “No,” and stopping there, rather as if at times she were literally following Christ's maxim about conversation. She would talk socially, if necessary, and sociably, if the chance arose, but she seemed to be able to manage without saying a lot of usual things. There was thus, to her acquaintances, a kind of blank about her; the world for a moment seemed with a shock to disappear and they were left in a distasteful void.

“Your aunt,” Mr. Coningsby had once said, “has no small-talk. It's a pity.” Ralph had agreed; Nancy had not, and there had been one of those continual small rows which at once annoyed and appeased their father. Annoyed him, for they hurt his dignity; appeased him, for they at least gave him a dignity to be hurt. He was somebody then for a few minutes; he was not merely a curiously festering consciousness. It was true he was also a legal officer of standing, a Warden in Lunacy. But—his emotions worried him with a question which his intellect refused to define—what, what exactly was the satisfaction of being a Warden in Lunacy? Fifty-eight, fifty-nine. But Sybil was older; she was over sixty. Perhaps in a few years this gnawing would pass. She was contented; no doubt time would put him also at peace.

He was not thinking of this while he sat in the room they called his study, looking at the evening paper and waiting for dinner. He was thinking how shameful Nancy's behavior had been. She lacked respect, she lacked modesty, she almost lacked decency. All that he had done … no doubt her engagement to—her understanding with—whatever it was she had along with this young Henry Lee fellow—had hardened her. There had been a rather vague confidence, a ring had appeared, so had Henry quite often. But to what the engagement was tending or of what the understanding was capable—that Mr. Coningsby could not or had not been allowed to grasp. He sat thinking of it, consoling himself with the reflection that one day she'd be sorry. She wasn't … she was … confused; all confused … confusion confounded … yes. Suddenly Nancy was in the room. “Look here, old thing”—no, he wasn't asleep; she was saying it. He hated to be discovered asleep just before dinner; perhaps she hadn't noticed—“and all that. Come and talk to Henry a minute before we eat.”

If her father had been quite clear how far the apology had gone, he would have known whether he might reasonably accept it. But he wasn't, and he didn't want to argue because of not having been asleep. So he made a noise in his throat and got up, adding with a princely magnanimity. “But don't be rude to your aunt. I won't toleratethat.”

Nancy, glowing with her past brief conversation with Henry and looking forward to the immediate future with zest, subdued an inclination to point out that it was she who had called Sybil a saint, and they both returned to the drawing-room.

Although Mr. Coningsby had known his daughter's fiancé—if indeed he were that—for some months now, he still felt a slight shock at seeing him. For to him Henry Lee, in spite of being a barrister—a young, a briefless barrister, but a barrister—was so obviously a gipsy that his profession seemed as if it must be assumed for a sinister purpose. He was fairly tall and dark-haired and dark-skinned, and his eyes were bright and darting; and his soft collar looked almost like a handkerchief coiled round his throat, only straighter, and his long fingers, with their quick secret movements—“Henroosts,” Mr. Coningsby thought, as he had thought before. A nice thing for Nancy to be tramping the roads—and Nancy was a gipsy name. That was her mother's fault. Names had for him a horrid attraction, largely owing to his own, which was Lothair. That disastrous name had to do with his father's godmother, a rich old lady with a passionate admiration for Lord Beaconsfield. To please that admiration her godson's first child had been named Sybil, the second Lothair. It might have been Tancred or Alroy; it might even have been Endymion. Mr. Coningsby himself allowed that Endymion Coningsby would have been worse. The other titles would no doubt have been allocated in turn, but for two facts: first, that the godmother abandoned politics for religion and spent large sums of money on Anglican sisterhoods; second, that there were no more children. But the younger was at once there, and there too soon to benefit by the conversion which would have saved others. Lothair—always, through a document-signing, bank-corresponding, cheque-drawing, letter-writing, form-filling, addressed, directoried, and important life, always Lothair Coningsby. If only he could have been called Henry Lee!

He thought so once more as they settled to dinner. He thought so through the soup. Something had always been unfair to him, luck or fate or something. Some people were like that, beaten through no fault of their own, wounded before the battle began; not everybody would have done so well as he had. But how it dogged him—that ghastly luck! Even in the last month Duncannon (and everyone knew that Duncannon was well off) had left him … no honest, useful, sincere legacy, but a collection of playing-cards, with a request that it should be preserved intact by his old friend, the legatee, Lothair Coningsby, and a further request that at the said legatee's death the collection should be presented to the British Museum. About that the legatee refused to think; some of the packs were, he believed, rather valuable. But for a couple of years or so, or anyhow for a year, nothing could be done; too many people knew of it. There had even been a paragraph in one of the papers. He couldn't sell them—Mr. Coningsby flinched as the word struck him for the first time—not yet awhile anyhow.

“Father,” Nancy said, “will you show us Mr. Duncannon's playing-cards after dinner?” Mr. Coningsby just checked a vicious sneer. “Henry,” Nancy went on, “saw about them in the papers.” Mr. Coningsby saw a gipsy reading torn scraps of newspapers under a hedge. “And he knows something about cards. What a lot youdoknow, Henry!” Yes, in a fair, cheating yokels out of their pennies by tricks or fortune-telling; which card is the pea under? Something like that, anyhow. Bah!

“My dear,” he said, “it's rather a painful business. Duncannon was my dear friend.”

“Still, father, if you would.… He'd have loved people to be interested.”

Mr. Coningsby, looking up suddenly, caught a swift, tender smile on Sybil's face, and wondered what she was grinning at. Nancy had hit on the one undeniable fact about the late Mr. Duncannon, and he couldn't think of any way of getting round it. But why should Sybil be amused?

“I'd be very grateful if you would, sir,” the young man said. “I do find them interesting—it's in my blood, I suppose,” he added, laughing at Nancy.

“And can you tell fortunes? Can you tell mine?” she answered joyously.

“Some by cards and some by hands,” he said, “and some by the stars.”

“Oh, I can tell some by hands,” she answered. “I've told father's and auntie's. Only I can't understand father's line of life; it seems to stop at about forty, yet here he is still alive.” Mr. Coningsby, feeling more like a death's head than a living Warden in Lunacy, looked down again.

“And Miss Coningsby's?” Henry asked, bowing towards her.

“Oh, auntie's goes on forever, as far as I can see,” Nancy answered, “right round under the finger.”

Henry for a moment looked at Sybil a little oddly, but he said nothing, and the chatter about palmistry was lost in Ralph's dominating the conversation with an announcement that those things, like spiritualism, were all great rubbish. “How can you tell from the palm of my hand whether I'm going to be ill at fifty, or have a fortune left me at sixty, or go to Zanzibar at seventy?”

“Hands are strange things,” Henry said. “Nobody knows very much about them yet.”

“Eh?” said Ralph, surprised.

“Auntie's got the loveliest hands I ever saw,” Nancy said, sending a side-glance at Henry and meeting the quick astonishment of his eyebrows. This being what he was meant to show—because she did think she had good hands, the rest of her being tolerable but unnoticeable, hair, face, figure, and everything—she allowed her own hand for a moment to touch his and added, “Look at them.”

They all looked, even Sybil herself, who said softly, “They are rather nice, aren't they?”

Her brother thought privately that this remark was in execrable taste. One didn't praise one's own belongings, still less oneself. What would people think if he said his face was “rather nice”?

“They're dears,” said Nancy.

“Jolly good,” said Ralph.

“They're extremely beautiful,” said Henry.

“There's a very striking hand in the British Museum,” Mr. Coningsby said, feeling the time had come for him to break silence, “belonging to an Egyptian king or something. Just a giant head and then in front of it a great arm with the fist closed—so.” He illustrated.

“I know it, sir,” Henry said, “the hand of the image of Rameses; it is a hand of power.”

“The hand of power! I thought that was something to do with murderers; no, of course, that was glory,” Nancy said, adding immediately, “and now, father, do let's look at the cards while we have coffee.”

Mr. Coningsby, seeing no easy way out, gloomily assented. “Where did you have them put, Sybil?” he asked as the whole party rose.

“In the chest in your study,” she answered. “The catalogue's with them.”

“Catalogue?” Ralph said. “He did it in style, didn't he? Fancy me making a catalogue of my old tennis rackets.”

“These cards,” Mr. Coningsby said with considerable restraint, “were not worn-out toys. They are a very valuable and curious collection of remarkable cards, gathered together with considerable difficulty and in some sense, I believe, priceless.”

Nancy pinched Henry's arm as they followed their father from the dining-room. “The dear!” she said. “I've heard him say the same thing himself, before they belonged to him.”

Ralph was whistling. “Oh, but I say now, priceless?” he said. “That'd be pretty valuable, wouldn't it?”

“I don't know exactly what the value would be to collectors, but considerable,” Mr. Coningsby said as he opened the large wooden chest, and then, thinking of the British Museum, added in a more sullen voice, “considerable.”

Sybil took from the chest a fat writing-book. “Well, shall I read the descriptions?” she asked. “If someone will call out the numbers.” For each pack was contained in a special little leather cover, with a place on it for a white slip containing a number.

“Right ho!” Ralph said. “I'll call out the numbers. Are they in order? It doesn't look like it. Number ninety-four.”

“I think I will read, Sybil,” Mr. Coningsby said. “I've heard Duncannon talk of them often and it's more suitable. Perhaps you'd pick them up and call the numbers out. And then the young people can look at them.”

“Give me that chair, then, if you will, Henry,” Sybil assented. Her brother sat down on the other side of a small table, and the “young people” thronged round it.

“Number—,” Sybil began and paused. “Ralph, if you wouldn't mind going on the same side as Nancy and Henry, I could see too.”

Ralph obeyed, unaware that this movement, while removing an obstacle from his aunt's gaze, also removed his own from the two lovers. Sybil, having achieved the maximum of general satisfaction with the minimum of effort, said again, “Number—”

“I didn't think you'd be very interested, aunt,” Ralph, with a belated sense of apology, threw in.

Sybil smiled at him and said again, “Number—”

“I have never known your auntnotto be interested in anything, my boy,” Mr. Coningsby said severely, looking up, but more at Sybil than at Ralph, as if he were inclined to add, “and how the devil she does it I can't think!”

“Darling,” said Nancy, “aunt's a perfect miracle, but can't we leave her for now and get on with the cards?”

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