When I made my way to bed, some time later, I tapped at Eisengrim’s door. As I had expected, he was awake, and lay, looking very fine, against his pillows, wearing a handsome dressing-robe.
“Kind of you to come in and say goodnight, Dunny.”
“I expected you’d be waiting up to see what your notices were.”
“A disgusting way of putting it. Well, what were they?”
“About what you’d expect. Kinghovn had a fine sense of the appearance of everything. I’ll bet that as you talked he had that fair all cut up into long shots, close-ups, and atmosphere shots. And of course he’s a devil for detail. For one thing, he wondered why nobody wanted to use the privy while you were left in it for so long.”
“Simple enough. Willard wrote a note which said ‘INFECTION: Closed by Doctor’s Order’, and pinned it to the door.”
“Also he was anxious to know what it was you ate when you found yourself in the curious prison with the rounded walls.”
“It was a box of Cracker-Jack. I didn’t know what it was at the time, and had never eaten it before. Why should I have included those details in my story? I didn’t know them then. It would have been a violation of narrative art to tell things I didn’t know. Kinghovn ought to have more sense of artistic congruity.”
“He’s a cameraman. He wants to get a shot of everything, and edit later.”
“I edit as I go along. What did the others say?”
“Ingestree talked for quite a while about the nature of puritanism. He doesn’t know anything about it. Its just a theological whimwham to him. He’s talked about puritanism at Oxford to Ronny Knox and Monsignor D’Arcy, but that stuff means nothing in terms of the daily, bred-in-the-bone puritanism we lived in Deptford. North American puritanism and the puritanism the English know are worlds apart. I could have told him a thing or two about that, but my time for instructing people is over. Let em wallow in whatever nonsense pleases ‘em, say I.”
“Did Lind have anything to say?”
“Not much. But he did say that nothing you told us was incomprehensible to him, or even very strange. ‘We know of such things in Sweden,’ he said.”
“I suppose people know of such things everywhere. But every rape is unique for the aggressor and the victim. He talks as if he knew everything.”
“I don’t think he means it quite that way. When he talks about Sweden, I think it is a mystical rather than a geographical concept. When he talks of Sweden he means himself, whether he knows it or not. He really does understand a great deal. You remember what Goethe said? No, of course you don’t. He said he’d never heard of a crime of which he could not believe himself capable. Same with Lind, I suppose. That’s his strength as an artist.”
“He’s a great man to work with. I think between us we’ll do something extraordinary with this film.”
“I hope so. And by the way, Magnus, I must thank you for the very kind things you said about me tonight. But I assure you I didn’t especially mean to be kind to you, when we were boys. I mean, it wasn’t anything conscious.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t. But that’s the point, don’t you see? If you’d done it out of duty, or for religious reasons, it would have been different. But it was just decency. You’re a very decent man, Dunny.”
“Really? Well—it’s nice of you to think so. I’ve heard dissenting opinions.”
“Its true. That’s why I think you ought to know something I didn’t see fit to tell them tonight.”
“You suggested you had been editing. What did you leave out?”
“One gets carried away, telling a story. I may have leaned a little too heavily on my character as the wronged child. But would they have understood the whole truth? I don’t after fifty years when I have thought it over and over. You believe in the Devil, don’t you?”
“In an extremely sophisticated way, which would take several hours to explain, I do.”
“Yes. Well, when the Devil is walking beside you, as he was walking beside me at that fair, it doesn’t take a lot of argument to make him seem real.”
“I won’t insult you by saying you’re a simple man, but you’re certainly a man of strong feeling, and your feelings take concrete shapes. What did the Devil do to you that you withheld when you were talking downstairs?”
“The whole nub of the story. When Willard gave me that quarter in the tent, we were standing behind the crowd, which was gaping at Andro who was showing his big right bicep while twitching his sumptuous left breast. Nobody was looking. Willard had slipped his hand down the back of my pants and gently stroked my left buttock. Gave it a meaning squeeze. I remember very well how warm his hand felt.”
“I smiled up into his face.”
“Is that all you have to say? Don’t you see what I’m getting at? I had never had any knowledge of sex, had never known a sexual caress before, even of the kind parents quite innocently give their children. But at this first sexual approach I yielded. I cosied up to Willard. How could I, without any true understanding of what I was doing, respond in such a way to such a strange act?”
“You were mad to learn his magic. It doesn’t seem very strange to me.”
“But it made me an accomplice in what followed.”
“You think that? And you still blame yourself?”
“What did I know of such things? I can only think it was the Devil prompting me, and pushing me on to what looked then, and for years after, like my own destruction.”
The Devil isn’t a popular figure nowadays. The people who take him seriously are few.”
“I know. How he must laugh. I don’t suppose God laughs at the people who think He doesn’t exist. He’s above jokes. But the Devil isn’t. That’s one of his most endearing qualities. But I still remember that smile. I had never smiled like that before. It was a smile of complicity. Now where would such a child as I was learn such a smile as that?”
“From that other old joker, Nature, do you suppose?”
“I don’t take much stock in Nature… Thanks for coming in. Goodnight, decent man.”
“Magnus, are you becoming sentimental in your old age?”
“I’m fully ten years younger than you, you sour Scot. Goodnight, kind man.”
I went to my room, and to my bed, but it was a long time before I slept. I lay awake, thinking about the Devil. Many people would have considered my bedroom at Sorgenfrei a first-class place for such reflection, because so many people associate the Devil with a high standard of old-fashioned luxury. Mine was a handsome room in a corner tower, with an area of floor as big as that of a modest modern North American house. Sorgenfrei was an early nineteenth-century construction, built by a forebear of Liesl’s who seemed to have something in common, at least in his architectural taste, with the mad King of Bavaria; it was a powerfully romantic Gothic Revival house, built and furnished with Teutonic thoroughness. Everything was heavy, everything was the best of its kind, everything was carved, and polished, and gilded, and painted to the highest possible degree, and everything would drive a modern interior decorator out of his tasteful mind. But it suited me splendidly.
Not, however, when I wanted to think about the Devil. It was too romantic, too Germanic altogether. As I lay in my big bed, looking out of the windows at the mountains on which moonlight was falling, what could be easier than to accept an operatic Devil, up to every sort of high-class deception, and always defeated at the end of the story by the power of sheer simple-minded goodness? All my life I have been a keen operagoer and playgoer, and in the theatre I am willing to accept the notion that although the Devil is a very clever fellow, he is no match for some ninny who is merely good. And what is this goodness? A squalid, know-nothing acceptance of things as they are, an operatic version of the dream which, in North America, means Mom and apple pie. My whole life had been a protest against this world, or the smudged, grey version of it into which I had been born in my rural Canada.
No, no; that Devil would never do. But what else is there? Theologians have not been so successful in their definitions of the Devil as they have been in their definitions of God. The words of the Westminster Confession, painstakingly learned by heart as a necessity of Presbyterian boyhood, still seemed, after many wanderings, to have the ring of indisputable authority. God was infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory. Excellent, even if one is somewhat seduced by the high quality of the prose of 1648. What else? Most loving, most gracious, merciful, longsuffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin: the rewarder of those that diligently seek him. Aha, but where does one seek God? In Deptford, where Eisengrim and I were born, and might still be living if, in my case, I had not gone off to the First World War, and in his case, if he had not been abducted by a mountebank in a travelling show? I had sought God in my lifelong, unlikely (for a Canadian schoolmaster) preoccupation with that fantastic collection of wise men, virtuous women, thinkers, doers, organizers, contemplatives, crack-brained simpletons, and mad mullahs that are called Saints. But all I had found in that lifelong study was a complexity that brought God no nearer. Had Eisengrim sought God at all? How could I know? How can anybody know what another man does in this most secret part of his life? What else had I been taught in that profound and knotty definition? That God was most just and terrible in his judgements, hating all sin, one who will by no means clear the guilty. Noble words, and (only slightly cloaked by their nobility) a terrifying concept. And why should it not be terrifying? A little terror, in my view is good for the soul, when it is terror in the face of a noble object.
The Devil, however, seems never to have been so splendidly mapped and defined. Nor can you spy him simply by turning a fine definition of God inside out; he is something decidedly more subtle than just God’s opposite.
Is the Devil, then, sin? No, though sin is very useful to him; anything we may reasonably call sin involves some personal choice. It is flattering to be asked to make important choices. The Devil loves the time of indecision.
What about evil, then? Is the Devil the origin and ruler of that great realm of manifestly dreadful and appalling things which are not, so far as we can determine, anybody’s fault or the consequences of any sin? Of the cancer wards, and the wards for children born misshapen and mindless? I have had reason to visit such places—asylums for the insane in particular—and I do not think I am fanciful or absurdly sensitive in saying that I have felt evil to be palpable there, in spite of whatever could be done to lessen it.
These are evil things within my knowledge: I am certain there are worse things I have never encountered. And how constant this evil is—Let mankind laboriously suppress leprosy, and tuberculosis rages: when tuberculosis is chained, cancer rushes to take its place. One might almost conclude that such evils were necessities of our collective life. If the Devil is the inspirer and ruler of evil, he is a serious adversary indeed, and I cannot understand why so many people become jokey and facetious at the mention of his name.
Where is the Devil? Was Eisengrim, whose intuitions and directness of observation in all things concerning himself I had come to respect, right in saying the Devil stood beside him when Willard the Wizard solicited him to an action which, under the circumstances, I should certainly have to call evil? Both God and the Devil wish to intervene in the world, and the Devil chooses his moments shrewdly.
What had Eisengrim told us? That on 30 August 1918, he had descended into hell, and did not rise again for seven years? Allowing for his wish to startle us, and his taste for what a severe critic might call flashy rhetoric, could what he said be discounted?
It was always a mistake, in my experience, to discount Magnus Eisengrim. The only thing to do was to wait for the remainder of his narrative, and hope that it would make it possible for me to reach a conclusion. And that would be my much-desired document.