The Idler: Journey into Mystery

Editor’s note: If you have never read Sheldon Vanauken’s novel Gateway to Heaven (Richelieu Court), reviewed last month by Gregory Wolfe, you should know that the hero and heroine are Richard “Val” Valiance and Mary, whom he marries. Mary, who was crippled as a girl, was brought up in her father’s house in Georgetown. This “Journey” is written by Mary just as she wrote many of the log entries of other journeys in Gateway. Tracy and Susie are not fictional characters but friends of Vanauken, the former a regular reviewer in these pages.

Mary writes:

It is a gentle day here in Georgetown. I walked up to Wisconsin Avenue with Daddy, and after we parted I stood looking at the sky over Virginia. It seemed a softer, deeper blue somehow, perhaps because of the little fleecy clouds in the southern sky. And coming home, I saw the little buds on the trees that will soon be the tender leaves of spring. And, of course, I noticed the house of Captain the Honorable John Digby of the Royal Navy and felt a momentary sadness for Deirdre, wherever she may be. Not here though, I know, for Daddy lunched with the Hon. John on Tuesday.

Then, as Jolly let me in, I thought how good it was to be here again in the house of my Dark Ages and of Mummy’s painting and of first knowing and loving Richard. He, by the way, is over on the Eastern Shore, where his family lives at Redrock on the slow tidal river. He’ll be back here sometime this morning, and in a few days we’ll both go to Redrock. We’re over here, Val and I, from our house, Greyfell, in Oxfordshire. Since it is only to see our families, I hadn’t thought to write a log of the journey, but something weird has happened—no, not “weird” with its suggestion of witches or doom, but strange. I must try to write it down for Richard, though I’m not sure I under-stand it myself. Maybe he will, or maybe he’ll say my mind has gone. Anyway here it is.

Just after I came back from my walk, Jolly came in and said there was a gentleman to see me; he didn’t give a name, but he said he knew me well. So I went to see. A tall man, with a pleasant smile as I appeared; but, though there was something familiar about his face—I felt I ought to know him—I knew I’d never seen him in all my life. Maybe he was in one of my dreams.

“I know, Mary,” he said, still smiling, “you don’t recognize me. Nor should you—you’ve never laid eyes upon me. But I know you very well indeed—your walk down that mountain in Hawaii with the Navy cap on your head, wishing for a country-ham sandwich, sometimes in heels, sometimes barefoot. I loved that walk! And I know every detail of your journeys, all about Val and Pauline and Captain Easter and Leilani—and Deirdre. How can that be? Well, let us go into the study, and I shall explain. May we?”

How-can-this-be is right, I thought. But there was something kind and compelling in his voice and his eyes—and I knew I had to know.

“Of course,” I said. “I want to know.” So we went into the study— how did he know there was a study? — and we sat down. “Do, please, tell me,” I said. “Who are you?”

“My name won’t mean a thing to you,” he said. “Still, a name is a convenience, isn’t it? So, you can call me Van—not Mister Van, just Van. Of course, that doesn’t mean anything to you. But, as I said, I know everything about you, every word in all the log-books, and more, too, much more: even adventures that didn’t happen but might have happened. Potential adventures, one might say.”

“For heaven’s sake!” I said. “How could you?” But I knew somehow that he did. “Are you God, or maybe an Angel? No, if you were an Angel, you’d have said ‘Fear not!’ ”

Van laughed. “That’s my Mary!” he said and grinned at me. It came to me that he was fond of me. “No,” he said. “I’m assuredly not God. Not even an Angel. And yet, if we human beings do have Guardian Angels—well, I’m not one, but something a bit like one. Let me put it this way: You know your Thackeray: could he, Thackeray, and his central character, Colonel Esmond, talk to one another? Or Shakespeare and King Lear?”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. How could they—they live in different worlds, separated by centuries?”

“Oh, but they could!” he said. “Thackeray could write a chapter, or Shakespeare a scene, in which character and author meet and talk. But here is an important point about that, Mary. Neither Colonel Esmond nor King Lear could bring that about; the initiative has to be that of Thackeray or Shakespeare. And he has to go to and enter the world of the character. In that way it’s like God and man: we can pray, but if there is to be a dialogue, God has to bring it about.”

But—” I said, “but what are you saying? It can’t be, but are you saying that I, Mary Vallance—and Richard, who’s as real as anything! — are characters in a book by you? That’s crazy! Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I am saying that. As Deirdre once said to you, you are swift to understand. And it is the truth.”

“But . . .” I said and paused. “But, sir, er Van, I am real. When I pinch myself, it hurts.” I do pinch myself and it does hurt. “I’m real and Val is real. Aren’t we?”

“Yes, of course you are!” said Van. “But then we have to ask, what is reality? God created us all, and we are real. But, Mary, you’ve read all of C.S. Lewis. Do you remember what he and the other Inklings called the writing of fiction?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, I do. It was sub-something—oh, yes, sub-creation, wasn’t it?”

That’s right,” he said. “And he was right so to call it: that’s exactly what it is. But it is a creation; and created people and sub-created ones live and develop a will of their own: change the story because of what they are. This is certainly true of you. But the author—whether he is deciding what you do or simply writing down what you decide to do—has some influence. For instance, when you-all went to Tintern Abbey that time, I was there with you up on the walls: And you, or I, or both of us, thought of the hot-eyed reformers smashing the beauty that the monks had built to the glory of God, smashed it in order to steal the abbey lands. That began a process in you and in me too that led us to the old, true Church.”

“But,” I said, “how can I be real if I’m only in a book? What book, by the way?”

“What else but Gateway to Heaven?” said Van with a laugh. “It had to be that. But, Mary, my dear, isn’t Colonel Esmond real to you? You read the life of Lord Nelson, too. Isn’t one as real as the other? Isn’t Sherlock Holmes real to millions? When I die, you and Val will go on. As I said earlier, we have to ask what reality is. Remember where Descartes began? What did he say?”

“I think, therefore I am,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “And you are thinking, aren’t you? You are real, in your world. It’s much the same as mine, but not exactly. In your world Captain Easter sails the seas in Windrush and Pauline and Jean have La Verriere Bleue.”

“Not in yours?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Only, I can enter your world, you see. And many others do, too, and you-all are real for them, and they would like to meet you.”

“I’d like to meet them,” I said.

“You shall,” said Van. “Or two of them at least. Richard will be back from Redrock in about an hour—just time enough for you to get your thoughts in order, or logged, so that you can tell him about this visit. So I’ll leave you now.”

“But, Van,” I said, “I want Richard to meet you. Otherwise he’ll think I’m mad.”

“Not Val!” he said, grinning. “You know he won’t. Anyhow, I’m coming back—shall we say about three o’clock? And I’ll bring a couple of friends who know your adventures and want to meet you. Is that all right?”

“Well,” I said, “if all you’ve told me is true, then you’re writing the script and you know perfectly well it’ll be all right. I’m tempted to skulk in my room and refuse to come out—just to see if I can—but the trouble is I want to see you again.”

He rose, very tall, and formally offered his hand, reminding me for a moment of Daddy. We shook hands, smiled at one another, and he was gone.

—And I write, hardly believing what I put down. And now, just here, Richard arrives.

“Val!” I say. “Oh, Val! Something strange—oh, heavens! absolutely incredible!—has happened this morning. You won’t believe it, but I’ve written it down just as it happened. Before you tell me about Redrock or anything, sit down and read this . . . ”

At precisely three o’clock the bell rings, and I go to the door myself, leaving Val in the drawing-room. Van stands on the step accompanied by a young man and a fair-haired smiling girl.

“Here are Tracy and his lady Susie,” says Van. “And they already know that you are Mary of the sea-blue eyes. Susie has always felt that you and Richard are people she knows. They both want to know you-all better.”

We go into the drawing room, and there are further introductions. Tracy and Susie look at Richard and then at me, as if to see whether there were changes, and then Susie’s eyes turn to the painting that hangs there.

“That’s your mother, isn’t it?” she says. “I’ve always wanted to see that picture. She’s lovely—and you do look like her. I’m so excited to be here.”

“I’m glad, too,” says Tracy. “Very glad. Only, I wish that the schooner Windrush were moored at the bottom of the garden. I’ve always wanted to see that brave ship and meet Captain Easter. Why didn’t you arrange that, Van?”

“If I am to believe Mary’s account of your earlier visit,” says Richard, “you could have done.”

“Not at the bottom of the garden, anyhow,” says Van. “No closer than the Potomac. And the Captain might have protested.”

“Van,” says Richard, “you know, all this is very hard to believe. Like Mary—and Descartes—I think and therefore exist. How can I be real and not-real?”

“You certainly seem real to me!” says Susie. “I shook hands with you, and it was a real, warm hand.”

Van laughs. “Of course you’re real,” he says. “That’s why the two worlds are meeting.”

At that moment Jolly comes in with a tray. A steaming pot of tea under the cozy, and a plate of home-made scones with butter and strawberry jam.

“This is Jolly,” I say unnecessarily, and everybody smiles at her.

“From all I’ve read,” says Susie, “Jolly’s one in a million.”

After Jolly has withdrawn and I have poured out the tea and handed round the scones, Richard says, “I’ve been thinking.”

“A good thing to do,” says Tracy with a grin. “Er, what?”

“Well,” says Richard, “truth is, this should have been Mary’s thought. After all, she’s the one who’s always talking about parallel worlds, isn’t she? Anyway, here’s the thought: it is that the Georgetown in this world that Mary and I are visiting her father in and the Georgetown in the world that Tracy and Susie and Van live in—when they are home, that is—are perhaps both real worlds, parallel worlds. What about that?”

H, that’s it!” I say. “Just right— both real, almost overlapping, but very slightly different.”

“I like that,” says Tracy. “And here we are, visiting your Georgetown— though I don’t quite know how.”

“Oh, gosh!” says Susie. “Maybe we won’t be able to go back.”

Van smiles. “I think you will,” he says.

“Listen!” I say. “I’ve thought of something else. Van, this morning, was speaking of the worlds of Thackeray and Colonel Esmond—parallel worlds again, Thackeray in the nineteenth century, Esmond in the seventeenth. But how does anyone know—even Thackeray himself—whether he created the world of Castlewood and Colonel Esmond? Maybe they just came into his mind from a real parallel world that his mind was sensitive to. Maybe all authors, writers of fiction, are just `sensitives.’ ”

“Ah,” says Tracy. “And so it may be that Van wrote down for us, Susie and me, not something he invented but something he somehow tuned in to—the adventures you-all were having, the logbooks you-all were writing in that world: a parallel reality. How about that, Van?”

“Oh,” says Susie. “I really like that: two real worlds. That must be the way of it.” She looked at Van, as did everybody else.

“Good lord!” says Van. “I seem to be on the spot. How can I know? I like it, too. But I don’t know how to be sure, one way or the other. I can say this, though. When I, so to speak, arranged this meeting we’re having, I didn’t have the least idea that this fascinating talk of parallel worlds would come up. I’ll tell you how it began. Susie said in a letter—I live down South in Virginia, you know—she said that Richard and Mary seemed very real to her. So, answering her letter, I thought suddenly that it might be fun to write of a meeting of all of us. And I wondered momentarily whether it should take place at Greyfell or perhaps at Mary’s grandmother’s near Culpeper, and then I decided on Georgetown—but was that my choice or was it that I ‘tuned in’ and found out that Mary was here and Val was on the way from Redrock? I literally don’t know. Who can know?”

“We can’t know!” I say.

“No,” says Van. “But let me say again: I didn’t have any intimation that we should be talking of parallel worlds. In fact, I didn’t have any idea of what we’d be talking about. Richard introduced the parallel worlds—and it is just right. In fact, the whole conversation is as interesting to me as it would be if I had nothing to do with it, and maybe I didn’t, except for taking part in it. Who knows?”

“We’ll never be sure,” says Richard. “As far as I can tell, I thought of the parallel worlds.”

“I wonder,” says Susie thoughtfully, “how we’ll remember this meeting? Will we remember it as a dream or a fancy—or as something that really happened?”

“I’ll remember it as reality,” I say. “After all, this is the house I grew up in, and I’ll be able to recall Tracy sitting under Mummy’s picture.”

“I hope you do,” says Tracy. “Listen. We are all Catholics—and that means we know of the Mysteries—the Sacraments, for instance. Well, isn’t all this about parallel worlds another mystery, simply something to accept and live with?”

“I agree,” says Val.

“Speaking of being Catholic,” says Tracy, “where do you-all go to Mass here in Washington?”

“We haven’t been here enough,” says Richard. “not since we became R.C., to have a church.”

“Daddy took us to Holy Trinity once,” I say. “But I think he usually goes to St. Joseph’s.”

“Ah,” says Tracy. “That’s my church. Maybe we can all go there together some Sunday.”

“Let’s do!” I say. “But shall we be able to continue to meet across the worlds?”

“But, surely,” says Richard, “St. Joseph’s will be the same in both worlds.”

“There’s something no one has mentioned,” says Van. “Time. Remember, Thackeray and Colonel Esmond were in different centuries. I’m not certain that Richard and Mary are at this moment in the same decade as Tracy and Susie. — No, I say, as Tracy starts to speak, “let’s not compare notes and find out. Let’s have this golden afternoon timeless.”

“Okay,” says Tracy.

“More tea?” I say, but everybody is tea-logged and shakes his head.

“I’m not sure about future crossings,” says Van. “Maybe if all you-all go to St. Joseph’s you’ll sense or even see each other across the worlds. After all, it’s an intuitive sort of thing.”

“I’ll try,” says Susie. “Intuiting is what we women are supposed to be good at. I’ll try hard. If I give you a nudge, Tracy, it’ll mean I see Val and Mary.”

“We’ll look, too,” I say.

“Very good!” says Van. “And now I think this meeting at least must end. We must go, with warm farewells.”

“Thank you-all for coming,” says Richard. “It’s been, precisely, wonderful. And whatever the future may hold, I can’t help feeling that a friendship has begun.”

When the door closes behind the visitors, I say to Val, “Not a word till I have written all this down. But one question to ponder: Val, were they real?”

  • Sheldon Vanauken

    Sheldon Vanauken (1914 — 1996) is an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985.

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