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A Severe Mercy

Sheldon Vanauken


  Sheldon Vanauken


  For Davy

  Ah Studio! We’ll meet again.

  It won’t be gaslight in the lane,

  But just as gentle, only brighter.

  And Jack on Asian’s back.

  We’ll sing His glory

  Around those two: One Love-truth.

  Old world will give one final ‘crack!’

  Our hearts could not be lighter.

  Dom Julian OSB

  (Upon reading the Oxford

  chapters of this book in




  Title Page


  Author’s Note

  CHAPTER I - Prologue: Glenmerle Revisited

  CHAPTER II - The Shining Barrier (the Pagan Love)

  CHAPTER III - The Shadow of a Tree

  CHAPTER IV - Encounter with Light

  CHAPTER V - Thou Art the King of Glory

  CHAPTER VI - The Barrier Breached

  CHAPTER VII - The Deathly Snows

  CHAPTER VIII - The Way of Grief

  CHAPTER IX - The Severe Mercy

  CHAPTER X - Epilogue: The Second Death

  An Afterword on the Genesis of A Severe Mercy



  About the Author

  Also by Sheldon Vanauken


  About the Publisher

  Author’s Note

  THE C. S. LEWIS letters to me that appear in this book have been given to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Except for salutation and closing, the latter being invariably, ‘Yours, C. S. Lewis’, with a single exception which is shown, the letters are complete unless otherwise noted. Any ellipsis is Lewis’s. An appendix at the end of the book gives the dates and places of origin of the letters. The two letters in Chapter IV and the first (welcoming) letter in Chapter V appeared in my booklet ‘Encounter with Light’ (see below) with C. S. Lewis’s permission and are not copyrighted. The Trustees of the C. S. Lewis Estate have granted a non-exclusive permission to me to publish here the remainder of C. S. Lewis’s letters to me; and my thanks are tendered to them. C. S. Lewis normally but not invariably used such contractions as shd., wd., and cd. for should, would, and could; v. for very, and wh. for which—all common words—and the letters are printed as he wrote them.

  The booklet, ‘Encounter with Light’, by me was written about 1960 and is drawn upon or paraphrased for some of the material in Chapters IV and V. Copies of ‘Encounter’ may be obtained from Wheaton College, Illinois, or the Church of the Covenant, Lynchburg, Virginia, in America.

  The poems by Julian are published with the consent of the author, Dom Julian O.S.B., Portsmouth Abbey, Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

  All of the events in this story happened, the people are real people, the conversations are reconstructed—or quoted—from diaries and are very close to what was actually said. It is a true story.


  Prologue: Glenmerle Revisited

  THE COUNTRY ROAD STRETCHED ahead white in the moonlight and deserted. A single car, an MG-TD two-seater, was creeping along with its lights off and its top down. The driver looked intently at every tree and contour. The few houses were dark and silent, for it was long past midnight. The moon was full, high in the dome of heaven, and the June air was mild, carrying the scent offlowersand growing things.

  Ahead on the right appeared a white board fence set back a ways from the road, the long x’s, formed by the diagonal boards, running parallel to the road and disappearing over a low hill. The car came to a momentary halt, then moved on a few yards and crept off the road beneath a big oak. The driver uncoiled his long frame and climbed out.

  The night was very still, only the faintest rustle of leaves above him betrayed some stir in the air. Somewhere in the distance a lonesome dog barked in a patient and leisurely way.

  The traveller, a tall man in the late thirties, stood looking up into the branches of the oak and then began to walk with an easy stride along the road with the white fence on his right. Behind it he could see an old cherry tree: he remembered suddenly the sharp sweetness of sun-warmed red cherries and birds chirping crossly at a boy in their tree. A few hundred yards farther on, over the hill, he came to massive stone gateposts. The gates of Glenmerle. A brief smile touched his lips as he looked at the left-hand gatepost and remembered his small brother on top of it—it was easy to climb from the fence—waving frantically and unnecessarily at the fire engine that had come to put out a minor fire in a servant’s room. Between the gateposts the driveway lay white and still in the moonlight, running straight in to where it curved down a hill into the trees of the park. The house itself, up a further hill, was hidden.

  He stood there in the stillness, looking. A tiny breeze touched his face like a brief caress. He closed his eyes for a second or two, fancying as always that she was in the wind. ‘Davy?’ he murmured. ‘Dearling ?’ Then he walked in through the gates, the gravel crunching where he trod. On either side beyond the poplars that began the avenue lay the gate meadows where the wild strawberries grew. An image leaped into his mind of a sunny white tablecloth and a blue and white bowl heaped with small exquisite red strawberries andflakyshortcake in the thick yellow Jersey cream from the near-by Glenmerle Farm. He swallowed and walked on.

  Past the meadows the drive curved steeply down into big trees where the blackbirds lived, and the gravel became dappled with light and shadow. Now, as he descended, he could hear a ripple of water on the left where the streamflowed, and he could see gleams of silver where the moonlight fell upon it. In the shadows fireflies danced. At the bottom of the hill a little glade opened on the right, and—yes, there it was, the round lily pond: but dry now with grass bending over its edge. He looked at it, and suddenly it was full of water, and children stood around it in the sunlight. On its surface sailed a tiny frigate—a present from far-away England—with all sails set and flyingthe white ensign, followed by a beautifully sailing sloop; he waded in to rescue the frigate when she drove into the lilies. He looked again, and the pool was dry. He went on in the moonlight.

  At length he came to a sturdy wooden bridge. Here, long ago, he had said goodbye to his brother and Davy—Davy laughing with sunbeams filtering through the trees upon her brown hair—when he left to join the fleet. Davy, though, a few months later had come eagerly across the blue Pacific to be near him. The real farewell, not even dreamt of then, had been farewell to Glenmerle; for in the war years that were approaching, his youthful vigorous father had died and the estate had had to go. Now, more than a decade later, he stood again upon the old bridge; and Davy, unbelievably— especially here—was dead, too. And Glenmerle, unchanged as far as he could see, save for the dry lily pond, lay serene and lovely under the moon.

  Across the bridge the driveway swept up another, gentler hill to the house. He could see it plainly now in the floodof moonlight, long and white and spacious. Once, in the years that were gone, there would have been lights whatever the hour, if only a dim glow from his mother’s room; but tonight all was dark. He could of course have come in the daytime and been welcomed by the present owner, but he would not see others in this place. Indeed, he would go no farther than the bridge. He looked up the hill at the big comfortable country house with the dark woods behind and the lawns sweeping away in front, first down from the house and then up to South Hill, where he had so often lain as a boy, tracing the stars with his father’s shooting telescope. Below the hill in the far lawn stood one willow tree. It seemed bigger than he remembered it. Now that he thought of it, so did the elm in the driveway circle and the cone of sha
dow that was the blue spruce in the near lawn: it looked more than twice as tall as his tall father. Beyond the spruce the ground sloped down, except for Sycamore Point, a peninsula in a sea of grass where his father had loved to sit beneath the many-trunked sycamore. Beyond the house, towering far above its three storeys, was the mighty beech that he, to his mother’s suppressed alarm, had loved to climb; perched twice as high as the house, he would feel the great tree sway in the wind. Far beyond the house and the cottage and the other outbuildings came the grape arbour and then the orchard, stretching back to the tall forest trees. The far corner of the orchard, with woods on two sides, had been called ‘his acre’. On it there had been a tiny cabin with two bunks, one above the other, where he could ‘sleep out’. Because of his love for apples, his acre had contained ten varieties of apple tree—the crisp Jonathans had become his favourite. He wished he had one now or a bunch of purple grapes from the arbour. He remembered coming out of the cabin in summer dawns, the grass wet with dew and cold on his bare feet, and eating grapes to stay his hunger till the cook came down to cook eggs and bacon and sausage.

  He pictured the interior of the house as he had known it: the drawing-room with his mother half-reclining on the graceful old Duncan Phyfe sofa, the carved Chippendale chair that a great-aunt had brought from England, the oriental rugs glowing on the floor, the white columns of the mantelpiece. Past the fireplace, at the other end of the long room where the door opened into the study, was the piano: he could see his mother seated there with her auburn hair piled high on her head and hear her clear soprano singing the light-opera songs she loved. Or he might glance out a window and see her in the flower-garden cutting flowers or conferring with the ancient gardener.

  The gardener’s grandson had been his playmate when he was a child. Together they had fished in the stream with bent pins and swum and prowled about the woods, sometimes with his little brother trailing along. Sometimes the two of them had gone out in the night from his cabin to steal a watermelon or two from some farmer—stolen watermelons are sweeter—and brought them back where, on top of the haystack beside the cabin, they would eat the dripping hearts while bats flitted across the stars.

  His mind returned to the house. Through the study door, sitting under the ‘gothic’ lamp with its strange leaded shade, would be his father in the deep leather chair with books and pipes all around and casement windows opening towards the wood. Other images of his father came into his mind: his father with a book and a lawn chair on Sycamore Point or his father and himself out with the guns on a frosty morning. He thought of the curious excitement of waiting for birds to burst upwards or even a rabbit’s white scut bounding across a field. Once he had merely winged a crow and had brought it home to add to the white rabbits and other creatures, including a snake, that he fed and watched.

  Other people came and went through his mind, the aunts and cousins who had stayed at Glenmerle. The house was always merry with people. He thought of his Kentucky aunt with her soft voice and the round tins of home-made chocolates and other sweets she would bring, especially the melt-in-your-mouth white ones that could only be made on a marble-topped table, and the beaten biscuits, too, and the country hams. She and his cousin had been much at Glenmerle, and he had been much at her house in the Bluegrass. Then he thought of his father’s boyhood home, the great farm called Magic Grove, a grove planted in a mathematical figure by his grandfather’s father, who was a mathematician. He remembered sitting on his grandfather’s knee and being given a tiny gold dollar. Then he travelled to his other grandfather’s house: the many-veranda’d Victorian house set in its ample shady lawns. In it there were marvels, the staircase window with squares of deep-red stained glass, and a bedroom-sized bathroom with an immensely long tin bathtub and a wonderful grating in the floor to bring heat up from the kitchen: whilst having your bath you could hear people chattering in the kitchen and smell the savoury odours of bacon cooking to hurry you. Or maybe his grandfather’s deep voice calling you to hurry. He could see his grandfather now, white-bearded and jovial and, apparently, the permanent mayor of his town.

  Somewhere along the stream a bird awoke and twittered sleepily for a moment. The ghostly watcher in the night returned to Glen-merle and in his mind ascended the curving staircase and went along the corridor to his own domain, an odd L-shaped room with windows on three sides, since part of it was a stubby wing of the house. The other arm, even when he was a boy, contained book-cases to the ceiling: his parents gave him any book he, or they, could think of. He remembered his Treasure Island, bound in yellow with Long John on the cover and inscribed by his father: ‘To my dear son on his tenth birthday.’ Where the bookcases made a corner, rifles and shotguns leaned, and on a shelf there were what he deemed collector’s items: a discarded snakeskin, a piece of petrified wood, an actual snake in alcohol, and other treasures. Above were pictures of boys at his school: one boy, mounted, wore a helmet and held a polo stick, looking proud; and there was one of himself sitting a glossy bay. Behind the photographs, pinned to the wall, there was a tiny Confederate battleflag. The other wing of the room contained a desk and a chest of drawers, both of glowing old cherry; and above the chest was a painting of a square-rigger with a radiant sunrise or sunset astern. But he had never doubted that it was dawn and the vessel westward bound: ‘Leaning across the bosom of the urgent West.’ He wondered whether that picture had influenced his life: certainly there had been much of the sea in it, the ships of the Navy and liners and yachts under sail.

  But there had been other influences as deep or deeper. The books of course had shaped his mind in a hundred ways, especially perhaps the poetry. He thought of the master at his school who had awakened him to the glory of Shakespeare, and his own discovery of Shelley. So many of the books, the best-loved ones, had been about England, and of course the poems were England itself. As a child England had seemed much nearer than New York or the cowboy west. Partly, he supposed, it was because of the year in Kensington when he was very small: Kensington and the Round Pond and tea in the nursery and ‘Here comes a chopper to chop off your head’. And being taken out to the shires to visit country friends. That year had given England reality—perhaps that was why it lived in the books. And even as a boy he had wanted to go to Oxford. When in the end he had gone up, it had seemed both right and inevitable.

  His bed had been drawn up to the east window where he could see the moonrise over the orchard and sometimes be wakened by the dawn. Across a short stretch of lawn to the north was the giant beech at the edge of the wood. At night when he went to sleep, often with his pillow on the window-sill, his last sight of the world would be the dark trees and the bright stars overhead. What was the line? ‘We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.’ A thousand times he had imagined himself a small animal, like Mole or Rat, stealing to the edge of that familiar, friendly wood and peering out of the sheltering shadows. No, he thought, for anyone brought up like that, the woods and the night would hold no terrors, only safety.

  And of course beauty: the beauty that was for him the link between the ships and the woods and the poems. He remembered as though it were but a few days ago that winter night, himself too young even to know the meaning of beauty, when he had looked up at a delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars: suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him. He had wanted to tell someone, but he had no words, inarticulate in the pain and glory. It was long afterwards that he realised that it had been his first aesthetic experience. That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty. Even now, for him, ‘bare branches against the stars’ was a synonym for beauty.

  He went back up to his room, imagining himself there on a rainy day, lying comfortably on his bed and reading a book. Kipling maybe or Sherlock Holmes—or, more properly, Watson—or Rider Haggard. Or perhaps Olaf Stapledon: he had loved stories of remote futures. Then there might be a rustle outside
the door, and it would be a maid with the lunch he had decided to have in his room— lunches at Glenmerle were solitary affairs-a lunch that would invariably be lemonade, fresh-squeezed, and buttery beef sand-wiches. Ah, that bread! The thought of it conjured up another image of his mother, one with floury arms: only she could make the bread; that task was never entrusted to the cook. And the whole house would soon be filled with the delicious smell. The aroma of baking bread, the faint scent of lavender, and the fragrance of the cut flowers his mother was always arranging: those were the smells of Glenmerle. And perhaps the smell of his father’s pipe tobacco. And the smell of guns and gun oil. He could almost smell them now, even down at the bridge in the night; and they almost persuaded him that all was as it had been. He had but to stroll up the driveway and go in through the never-locked door and go up to his room and climb into bed. He grinned in the darkness: there might be some surprises if he did. Anyhow, if it were the past, there would long since have been a quick patter of paws and Polly’s nose thrust into his hand. He thought of her, a collie red-gold in the sunlight, and of all the other Glenmerle dogs, running through the grass. Dear old Polly!

  He remembered suddenly a particular summer morning, wandering about the woodlands with Polly. Far from home they had come out into a lush meadow with a little hill in the centre crowned with a spreading oak. There he had sat, leaning against the bark, with Polly lying daintily at his side. He must have been, he supposed, about fifteen. He couldn’t recall what it was in his reading that had begun the train of thought—yes, he could: it had been the great brains in their towers in Stapledon’s splendid Last and First Men. He had been wont to despise emotions: girls were emotional, girls were weak, emotions—tears—were weakness. But this morning he was thinking that being a great brain in a tower, nothing but a brain, wouldn’t be much fun. No excitement, no dog to love, no joy in the blue sky—no feelings at all. But feelings—feelings are emotions! He was suddenly overwhelmed by the revelation that what makes life worth living is, precisely, the emotions. But, then—this was awful!—maybe girls with their tears and laughter were getting more out of life. Shattering! He checked himself: showing one’s emotions was not the thing: having them was. Still, he was dizzy with the revelation. What is beauty but something that is responded to with emotion? Courage, at least partly, is emotional. All the splendour of life. But if the best of life is, in fact, emotional, then one wanted the highest, purest emotions: and that meant joy. Joy was the highest. How did one find joy? In books it seemed to be found in love—a great love—though maybe for the saints there was joy in the love of God. He didn’t aspire to that, though; he didn’t even believe in God. Certainly not! So, if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have, if he could find it, a great love. But in the books again, great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain—if, indeed, they went together. If there were a choice—and he suspected there was—a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.