THE DESCENT OF THE GODS
ALL the house at St. Anne's was empty, but for two rooms. In the kitchen, drawn a little closer than usual about the fire and with the shutters closed, sat Dimble and MacPhee and Denniston and the women. Removed from them by many a long vacancy of stair and passage, the Pendragon and Merlin were together in the Blue Room.
If anyone had gone up to the lobby outside the Blue Room, he would have found something other than fear that barred his way-an almost physical resistance. If he had succeeded in forcing his way forward against it, he would have come into a region of tingling sounds that were clearly not voices though they had articulation: and if the passage were quite dark he would probably have seen a faint light, not like fire or moon, under the Director's door. I do not think he could have reached the door itself unbidden. Already the whole house would have seemed to him to be tilting and plunging like a ship in a Bay of Biscay gale. He would have been horribly compelled to feel this earth not as the base of the universe but as a ball spinning and rolling onwards, both at delirious speed, and not through emptiness but through some densely inhabited and intricately structured medium. He would have known sensuously, until his outraged senses forsook him, that the visitants in that room were in it not because they were at rest but because they glanced and wheeled through the packed reality of heaven (which men call empty space) to keep their beams upon this spot of the moving earth's hide.
The Druid and Ransom had begun to wait for these visitors soon after sundown. Ransom was on his sofa. Merlin sat beside him, his hands clasped, his body a little bent forward. Sometimes a drop of sweat trickled coldly down his grey cheek. He had at first addressed himself to kneel, but Ransom forbade him. "See thou do it not!" he had said. "Have you forgotten that they are our fellow-servants?" The windows were uncurtained, and all the light that there was in the room came thence: frosty red when they began their waiting, but later star-lit.
Long before anything happened in the Blue Room the party in the kitchen had made their ten-o'clock tea. It was while they sat drinking it that the change occurred. Up till now they had instinctively been talking in subdued voices, as children talk in a room where their elders are busied about some august incomprehensible matter, a funeral, or the reading of a will. Now of a sudden they all began talking loudly at once, each, not contentiously but delightedly, interrupting the others. A stranger coming into the kitchen would have thought they were drunk, not soddenly but gaily drunk: would have seen heads bent close together, eyes dancing, an excited wealth of gesture. What they said, none of the party could afterwards remember. Dimble maintained that they had been chiefly engaged in making puns. MacPhee denied that he had ever, even that night, made a pun, but all agreed that they had been extraordinarily witty. If not plays upon words, yet certainly plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced, yet, on consideration, well worth taking seriously, had flowed from them and over them with dazzling prodigality. Even Ivy forgot her great sorrow. Mother Dimble always remembered Denniston and her husband as they had stood, one on each side of the fireplace, in a gay intellectual duel, each capping the other, each rising above the other, up and up, like birds or aeroplanes in combat. Never in her life had she heard such talk-such eloquence, such toppling structures of double meaning, such sky-rockets of metaphor and allusion.
A moment after that and they were all silent. Calm fell, as suddenly as when one goes out of the wind behind a wall. They sat staring upon one another, tired and a little self-conscious.
Upstairs this first change had had a different operation. There came an instant at which both men braced themselves. Ransom gripped the side of his sofa: Merlin set his teeth. A rod of coloured light, whose colour no man can name or picture, darted between them: no more to see than that, but seeing was the least part of their experience. Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened. But it did not matter: for all the fragments -needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts-went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun, Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.
Down in the kitchen drowsiness stole over them after the orgy of speaking had come to an end. Jane, having nearly fallen asleep, was startled by her book falling from her hand, and looked about her. How warm it was . . . how comfortable and familiar. She had always liked wood fires, but to-night the smell of the logs seemed more than ordinarily sweet. She began to think it was sweeter than it could possibly be, that a smell of burning cedar or of incense pervaded the room. It thickened. Fragrant names hovered in her mind- nard and cassia's balmy smells and all Arabia breathing from a box: even something more subtly sweet, perhaps maddening-why not forbidden?-but she knew it was commanded. She was too drowsy to think deeply how this could be. The Dimbles were talking together, but in so low a voice that the rest could not hear. Their faces appeared to her transfigured. She could no longer see that they were old-only mature, like ripe fields in August, serene and golden with the tranquillity of fulfilled desire. On her other side, Arthur said something in Camilla's ear. There too . . . but as the warmth and sweetness of that rich air now fully mastered her brain, she could hardly bear to look on them: not through envy (that thought was far away) but because a sort of brightness flowed from them that dazzled her, as if the god and goddess in them burned through their bodies and through their clothes and shone before her in a young double-natured nakedness of rose-red spirit that overcame her. And all about them danced (as she half saw) not the gross and ridiculous dwarfs which she had seen that afternoon but grave and ardent spirits, bright winged, their boyish shapes smooth and slender like ivory rods.
In the Blue Room also Ransom and Merlin felt about this time that the temperature had risen. The windows, they did not see how or when, had swung open; but the temperature did not drop, for it was from without that the warmth came. Through the bare branches, across the ground which was once more stiffening with frost, a summer breeze was blowing into the room, but the breeze of such a summer as England never has. Laden like heavy barges that glide nearly gunwale under, laden so heavily you would have thought it could not move, laden with ponderous fragrance of night-scented flowers, sticky gums, groves that drop odours, and with cool savour of midnight fruit, it stirred the curtains, it lifted a letter that lay on the table, it lifted the hair which had a moment before been plastered on Merlin's forehead. The room was rocking. They were afloat. A tingling and shivering as of foam and breaking bubbles ran over their flesh. Tears ran down Ransom's cheeks. He alone knew from what seas and what islands that breeze blew. Merlin did not: but in him also the inconsolable wound with which man is born waked and ached at this touching. Low syllables of prehistoric Celtic self-pity murmured from his lips. These yearnings and fondlings were, however, only the forerunners of the goddess. As the whole of her virtue seized, focused, and held that spot of the rolling earth in her long beam, something harder, shriller, more perilously ecstatic, came out of the centre of all the softness. Both the humans trembled -Merlin because he did not know what was coming, Ransom because he knew. And now it came. It was fiery, sharp, bright, and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light: it was Charity, not as mortals imagine it, not even as it has been humanised for them since the Incarnation of the Word, but the trans-lunary virtue, fallen upon them direct from the Third Heaven, unmitigated. They were blinded, scorched. They thought it would burn their bones. They could not bear that it should continue. They could not bear that it should cease. So Perelandra, triumphant among planets, whom men call Venus, came and was with them in the room.
Down in the kitchen MacPhee sharply drew back his chair so that it grated on the tiled floor like a pencil squeaking on a slate. "Man!" he exclaimed, " it's a shame for us to be sitting here looking at the fire. If the Director hadn't got a game leg himself, I'll bet you he'd have found some other way for us to go to work."
Camilla's eyes flashed towards him. "Go on!" she said, " go on!"
"What do you mean, MacPhee?" said Dimble.
"He means fighting," said Camilla.
"They'd be too many for us, I'm afraid," said Arthur Denniston.
"Maybe so!" said MacPhee. "But maybe they'll be too many for us this way, too. But it would be grand to have one go at them before the end. To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel I don't greatly care what happens. But I wouldn't be easy in my grave if I knew they'd won and I'd never had my hands on them."
"Oh," said Camilla, " if one could have a charge in the old style. I don't mind anything once I'm on a horse."
"I can't understand it," said Dimble. "I'm not like you, MacPhee. I'm not brave. But I was just thinking as you spoke that I don't feel afraid of being killed and hurt as I used to do. Not to-night."
"We may be, I suppose," said Jane.
"As long as we're all together," said Mother Dimble. "It might be ... no, I don't mean anything heroic ... it might be a nice way to die." And suddenly all their faces and voices were changed. They were laughing again, but it was a different kind of laughter. Their love for one another became intense. Each, looking on all the rest, thought, "I'm lucky to be here. I could die with these. "But MacPhee was humming to himself:" King William said. Be not dismayed, for the loss of one commander."
Upstairs it was, at first, much the same. Merlin saw in memory the wintry grass on Badon Hill, the long banner of the Virgin fluttering above the heavy British-Roman cataphracts, the yellow-haired barbarians. He heard the snap of the bows, the click-clack of steel points in wooden shields, the cheers, the howling, the ringing of struck mail. He remembered also the evening, fires twinkling along the hill, frost making the gashes smart, starlight on a pool fouled with blood, eagles crowding together in the pale sky. And Ransom, it may be, remembered his long struggle in the caves of Perelandra. But all this passed. Something tonic and lusty and cheerily cold, like a sea-breeze, was coming over them. There was no fear anywhere: the blood inside them flowed as if to a marching-song. They felt themselves taking their places in the ordered rhythm of the universe, side by side with punctual seasons and patterned atoms and the obeying Seraphim. Under the immense weight of their obedience their wills stood up straight and untiring like caryatides. Eased of all fickleness they stood; gay, light, nimble, and alert. They had outlived all anxieties; care was a word without meaning. To live was to share without effort this processional pomp. Ransom knew, as a man knows when he touches iron, the clear, taut splendour of that celestial spirit who now flashed between them: vigilant Malacandra, captain of a cold orb, whom men call Mars and Mavors, and Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth. Ransom greeted his guests in the tongue of heaven. But he warned Merlin that now the time was coming when he must play the man. The three gods who had already met in the Blue Room were less unlike humanity than the two whom they still awaited. In Viritrilbia and Venus and Malacandra were represented those two of the Seven genders which bear a certain analogy to the biological sexes, and can therefore be in some measure understood by men. It would not be so with those who were now preparing to descend. These also doubtless had their genders, but we have no clue to them. These would be mightier energies: ancient eldils, steersmen of giant worlds which have never from the beginning been subdued to the sweet humiliations of organic life.
"Stir the fire, Denniston, for any sake. That's a cold night," said MacPhee in the kitchen.
"It must be cold outside," said Dimble. All thought of that; of stiff grass, hen-roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun's dying, the earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat-death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. Another life?"Possibly," thought MacPhee. "I believe," thought Denniston. But the old life gone, all its times, all its hours and days, gone. Can even Omnipotence bring back? Where do years go, and why? Man never would understand it.
Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity, the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral. It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers. It was also strong like a mountain: its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed, but able to wither any who approached it unadvised. Ransom and Merlin suffered a sensation of unendurable cold: and all that was strength in Lurga became sorrow as it entered them. Yet Lurga in that room was overmatched. Suddenly a greater spirit came-one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.
In the kitchen his coming was felt. No one afterwards knew how it happened, but somehow the kettle was put on, the hot toddy was brewed. Arthur-the only musician among them-was bidden to get out his fiddle. The chairs were pushed back, the floor cleared. They danced. What they danced no one could remember. It was some round dance, no modern shuffling: it involved beating the floor, clapping of hands, leaping high. And no one, while it lasted, thought himself or his fellows ridiculous. It may, in fact, have been some village measure, not ill-suited to the tiled kitchen: the spirit in which they danced it was not so. It seemed to each that the room was filled with kings and queens, that the wildness of their dance expressed heroic energy, and its quieter movements had seized the very spirit behind all noble ceremonies.
Upstairs his mighty beam turned the Blue Room into a blaze of lights. Before the other angels a man might sink;
before this he might die, but if he lived at all he would laugh. If you had caught one breath of the air that came from him, you would have felt yourself taller than before. Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously. Kingship and power and festal pomp and courtesy shot from him as sparks fly from an anvil. The ringing of bells, the blowing of trumpets, the spreading out of banners are means used on earth to make a faint symbol of his quality. It was like a long sunlit wave, creamy-crested and arched with emerald, that comes on nine feet tall, with roaring and with terror and unquenchable laughter. It was like the first beginning of music in the halls of some king so high and at some festival so solemn that a tremor akin to fear runs through young hearts when they hear it. For this was great Glund-Oyarsa, King of Kings, through whom the joy of creation principally blows across these fields of Arbol, known to men in old times as Jove and under that name, by fatal but not inexplicable misprision, confused with his Maker-so little did they dream by how many degrees the stair even of created being rises above him.
At his coming there was holiday in the Blue Room. The two mortals, momentarily caught up into the Gloria which those five excellent Natures perpetually sing, forgot for a time the lower and more immediate purpose of their meeting. Then they proceeded to operation. Merlin received the powers into him.
He looked different next day. Partly because his beard had been shaved: but also, because he was no longer his own man. No one doubted that his final severance from the body was near. Later in the day MacPhee drove him off and dropped him in the neighbourhood of Belbury.
Mark had fallen into a doze in the tramp's bedroom that day, when he was startled, and driven suddenly to collect himself, by the arrival of visitors. Frost came in first. Two others followed. One was the Deputy Director: the other was a man whom Mark had not seen before.
This person was dressed in a rusty cassock and carried in his hand a wide-brimmed black hat such as priests wear in many parts of the Continent. He was a very big man, and the cassock perhaps made him look bigger. He was clean shaven, revealing a large face with heavy and complicated folds in it, and he walked with his head a little bowed. Mark decided that he was a simple soul, probably an obscure member of some religious order who happened to be an authority on some even more obscure language. It was rather odious to see him between those two birds of prey-Withers effusive and flattering on his right and Frost, on his left, waiting with scientific attention but also, as Mark could see, with a certain cold dislike, for the result of the new experiment.
Wither talked to the stranger for some moments in a language which Mark recognised as Latin. "A priest, obviously," thought Mark. "But I wonder where from? Wither knows most of the ordinary languages. Would the old chap be a Greek?" The stranger took a step nearer to the bed and spoke two syllables in a low voice. For a second or two the tramp seemed to be afflicted with a shivering fit; then, slowly, but with continuous movement, as when the bows of a ship come round in obedience to the rudder, he rolled round and lay staring up into the other's face. From certain jerkings of his head and hands and from certain attempts to smile. Mark concluded that he was trying to say something, probably of a deprecatory and insinuating kind. What next followed took his breath away. The stranger spoke again: and then, with much facial contortion, mixed with coughs and stammers and spluttering and expectoration, there came out of the tramp's mouth, in a high unnatural voice, syllables, words, a whole sentence, in some language that was neither Latin nor English. All this time the stranger kept his eyes fixed on ' those of the tramp.
The stranger spoke again. This time the tramp replied at much greater length and seemed to manage the unknown language a little more easily, though his voice remained quite unlike that in which Mark had heard him talking for the last few days. At the end of his speech he sat up in bed and pointed to where Wither and Frost were standing. The stranger appeared to ask him a question. The tramp spoke for the third time.
At this reply the stranger started back, crossed himself several times, and exhibited every sign of terror. He turned and spoke rapidly in Latin to the other two, caught up his skirts, and made a bolt for the door. But the scientists were too quick for him. For a few minutes all three were wrangling there, Frost's teeth bared like an animal's, and the loose mask of Wither's face wearing, for once, a quite unambiguous expression. The old priest was being threatened. Shaking his head and holding out his hands, he came timidly back to the bedside. The tramp, who had relaxed during the struggle at the door, suddenly stiffened again and fixed his eyes on this frightened old man as if awaiting orders.
More words in the unknown language followed. The tramp once more pointed at Wither and Frost. The stranger turned and spoke to them in Latin, apparently translating. Wither and Frost looked at one another as if each waited for his fellow to act. What followed was pure lunacy. With infinite caution, wheezing, and creaking, down went the whole shaky senility of the Deputy Director, down on to its knees: and half a second later with a jerky, metallic movement Frost got down beside him. When he was down he suddenly looked over his shoulder to where Mark was standing. "Kneel," he cried, and instantly turned his head. Mark never could remember whether he simply forgot to obey this order or whether his rebellion dated from that moment.
The tramp spoke again, always with his eyes fixed on those of the man in the cassock. And again the latter translated, and then stood aside. Wither and Frost began going forward on their knees till they reached the bedside. The tramp's hairy, dirty hand with its bitten nails was thrust out to them. They kissed it. Then it seemed that some further order was given them. Wither was gently expostulating in Latin against this order. He kept on indicating Frost. The words venia tua (each time emended to venia vestrd) recurred so often that Mark could pick them out. But apparently the expostulation was unsuccessful: a few moments later Frost and Wither had both left the room.
As the door shut, the tramp collapsed like a deflated balloon. He rolled himself to and fro on the bed muttering, "Gor', blimey. Couldn't have believed it. It's a knock-out. A fair knock-out."But Mark had little leisure to attend to this. He found that the stranger was addressing him, and though he could not understand the words, he looked up. Instantly he wished to look away again and found that he could not. A moment later he fell into his chair and slept.
"It is ... er ... profoundly perplexing," said the Deputy Director, as soon as they found themselves outside the door.
"It certainly looked," continued Frost, "as if the man in the bed were being hypnotised and the Basque priest were in charge of the situation."
"And how on your hypothesis would a Basque priest come to invent the story that our guest was Merlinus Ambrosius?"
"That is the point. If the man in the bed is not Merlinus, then someone else, someone quite outside our calculations, namely the priest, knows our whole plan."
"And that, my dear friend, is why the retention of both these persons and a certain extreme delicacy in our attitude to both is required."
"They must, of course, be detained."
"I would hardly say detained. It has implications ... the most cordial welcome, the most meticulous courtesy .. ."
"Do I understand that you had always pictured Merlinus entering the Institute as a Dictator rather than a colleague?"
"As to that," said Wither, " my conception had always been elastic. It would be a very real grief to me if I thought you were allowing any misplaced sense of your own dignity . . . ah, in short, provided he is Merlinus . . ."
"Where are you taking us at the moment?"
"To my own apartments. The request was that we should provide our guest with some clothes."
"There was no request. We were ordered." The Deputy Director made no reply. When both men were in his bedroom and the door was shut, Frost said, -"You do not seem to realise the dangers. We must take into account the possibility that the man is not Merlinus. And if he is not, then the priest knows things he ought not to know. And where did you get the priest from?"
"I think that is the kind of shirt which would be most suitable," said Wither, laying it on the bed. "The suits are in here. The . . . ah . . . clerical personage said he had come in answer to our advertisement."
"What do you propose to do?"
"We will, of course, consult the Head at once. I use that term, you understand, purely for convenience."
"But how can you? Have you forgotten that this is the night of the inaugural banquet, and that Jules is coming down? He may be here in an hour. You will be dancing attendance on him till midnight."
Wither had indeed forgotten. But the realisation of this troubled him more than it would have troubled another. It was like the first breath of winter-the first crack in that great secondary self which he had built up to carry on the business of living while he floated far away on the frontiers of ghosthood.
"You have to consider at once," said Frost, " what to do with these two men this very evening."
"Which reminds me that we have already left them alone-and with Studdock, too-for over ten minutes. We must go back."
"And without a plan?" enquired Frost.
"We must be guided by circumstances," said Wither.
They were greeted on their return by a babble of imploring Latin from the man in the cassock. "Let me go," he said; "I entreat you do not do violence to a harmless old man. I will tell nothing-God forgive me-but I cannot stay here. This man who says he is Merlinus come back from the dead-he is a diabolist, a worker of infernal miracles. Look! Look what he did to the poor young man." He pointed to where Mark lay unconscious in his chair.
"Silence!" said Frost in the same language, "and listen. If you do what you are told, no harm will come to you. If you do not, you will be destroyed."
The man whimpered.
Suddenly, not as if he wished to but as if he were a machine that had been worked, Frost kicked him. "Get on," he said.
The end of it was that the tramp was washed and dressed. When this had been done, the man in the cassock said, "He is saying that he must now be taken through your house and shown the secrets."
"Tell him," said Wither, " that it will be a very great pleasure and privilege--"
But here the tramp spoke again. "He says," translated the big man, " first that he must see the Head and the beasts and the criminals who are being tormented. Secondly, that he will go with one of you alone. With you, sir," and here he turned to Wither. "I will allow no such arrangement," said Frost in English.
"My dear Frost," said Wither, " this is hardly the moment . . . and one of us must be free to meet Jules."
Wither thought that Frost had intended to say something but had grown afraid. In reality, Frost found it impossible to remember any words. Perhaps it was due to the shifts from Latin to English which had been going on. Nothing but nonsense syllables would occur to his mind. He had long known that his intercourse with the beings he called macrobes might have effects on his psychology which he could not predict. In a dim way the possibility of complete destruction was never out of his thoughts. Now, it seemed to be descending on him. He reminded himself that fear was only a chemical phenomenon. For the moment, clearly, he must step out of the struggle, come to himself, and make a new start later in the evening. For, of course, this could not be final. At worst it could only be the first hint of the end. Probably he had years of work before him. He would outlast Wither. He stood aside, and the tramp, accompanied by the real Merlin and the Deputy Director, left the room.
Frost had been right in thinking that the aphasia would be only temporary. As soon as they were alone he found no difficulty in saying, as he shook Mark by the shoulder, "Get up. What do you mean by sleeping here? Come with me to the Objective Room."
Before proceeding to their tour of inspection Merlin demanded robes for the tramp, and Wither dressed him as a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Edgestow. Thus arrayed, walking with eyes half shut, the bewildered tinker was led upstairs and downstairs and through the zoo and into the cells. Now and then his face underwent a spasm as if he were trying to say something; but he never succeeded in producing any words except when the real Merlin asked him a question and fixed him with his.
Meanwhile, in the Objective Room, something like a crisis had developed. As soon as they arrived there Mark saw that the table had been drawn back. On the floor lay a crucifix, almost life-size, a work in the Spanish tradition, ghastly and realistic. "We have half an hour to pursue our exercises," said Frost. Then he instructed Mark to trample on it and insult it in other ways.
Now, whereas Jane had abandoned Christianity in early childhood, along with fairies and Santa Claus, Mark had never believed it at all. At this moment, therefore, it crossed his mind for the first time that there might conceivably be something in it. Frost, who was watching him carefully, knew perfectly well that this might be the result of the present experiment. But he had no choice. Whether he wished it or not, this sort of thing was part of the initiation.
"But, look here," said Mark.
"What is it?" said Frost. "Pray be quick."
"This," said Mark, " this is all surely a pure superstition."
"Well, if so, what is there objective about stamping on the face? Isn't it just as subjective to spit on a thing like this as to worship it?"
"That is superficial. If you had been brought up in a non-Christian society, you would not be asked to do this. Of course it is a superstition: but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for many centuries. It can be experimentally shown that it still forms a dominant system in the subconscious of many whose conscious thought appears to be wholly liberated. An explicit action in the reverse direction is therefore a necessary step towards complete objectivity. We find in practice that it cannot be dispensed with."
Mark was surprised at the emotions he was undergoing. He did not regard the image with anything like a religious feeling. Most emphatically it did not belong to that idea of the Straight or Normal which had, for the last few days, been his support. The horrible vigour of its realism was, indeed, as remote from that Idea as anything else in the room. That was one source of his reluctance. To insult even a carved image of such agony seemed abominable. But it was not the only source. With the introduction of this Christian symbol the whole situation had altered, and become incalculable. His simple antithesis of the Normal and the Diseased had obviously failed to take something into account. Why was the crucifix there? Why were more than half the poison-pictures religious?"Pray make haste," said Frost. He was on the verge of obeying and getting the whole silly business over, when the defencelessness of the figure deterred him. Not because its hands were nailed and helpless, but because they were only made of wood and therefore even more helpless, because the thing, for all its realism, was inanimate and could not in any way hit back, he paused. The unretaliating face of a doll-one of Myrtle's dolls-which he had pulled to pieces in boyhood had affected him in the same way.
"What are you waiting for, Mr. Studdock?" said Frost. Mark was aware of rising danger. Obviously, if he disobeyed, his last chance of getting out of Belbury alive might be gone. Even of getting out of this room. He was himself, he felt, as helpless as the wooden Christ. As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way -neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days. And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself an image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Crooked met the Straight-what would happen to him if he remained straight. It was, in a more emphatic sense than he had understood, a cross.
"Do you intend to go on with the training or not?" said Frost. His eye was on the time. He knew that Jules must have very nearly reached Belbury, and that he might be interrupted at any moment. He had chosen this time for this stage in Mark's initiation partly in obedience to an unexplained impulse (such impulses grew more frequent with him every day), but partly because he wished, in the uncertain situation which had now arisen, to secure Mark at once. He and Wither and possibly (by now) Straik were the only full initiates in the N.I.C.E. On them lay the danger of making any false step in dealing with the man who claimed to be Merlin and with his mysterious interpreter. For him who took the right steps there was a chance of ousting all the others. He knew that Wither was waiting eagerly for any slip on his own part. Hence it seemed to him of the utmost importance to bring Mark as soon as possible beyond that point after which there is no return, and the disciple's allegiance both to the macrobes and to the teacher who has initiated him becomes a matter of psychological necessity.
"Do you not hear what I am saying?" he asked. Mark was thinking, and thinking hard. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him-had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have vanished. They had been a safeguard . . . they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said, "It's all bloody nonsense, and I'm damned if I do any such thing."
When he said this he had no idea what might happen next. Then he saw that Frost was listening, and he began to listen himself. A moment later the door opened. The room seemed suddenly full of people-a man in a red gown (Mark did not recognise the tramp) and the huge man in the black gown and Wither.
In the great drawing-room at Belbury a singularly uncomfortable party was by now assembled. Horace Jules, Director of the N.I.C.E., had arrived about half an hour before. Conversation was hanging fire.
Conversation with Mr. Jules was always difficult, because he insisted on regarding himself not as a figure-head but as the real Director of the Institute, and even as the source of most of its ideas. And since, in fact, any science he knew was that taught him at the University of London over fifty years ago, it was not, in fact, possible to talk to him about most of the things the Institute was really doing. That was why the absence of the Deputy Director was so disastrous; Wither alone was master of a conversational style that exactly suited Jules.
Jules was a cockney, a very little man, whose legs were so short that he had unkindly been compared to a duck. He had a turned-up nose and a face in which some original bonhomie had been much interfered with by years of good living and conceit. His novels had first raised him to fame and affluence; later, as editor of the weekly called We Want to Know, he had become such a power in the country that his name was really necessary to the N.I.C.E.
"And as I said to the Archbishop," observed Jules, " you may not know, my lord, said I, that modern research shows the temple at Jerusalem to have been about the size of an English village church."
"God!" said Feverstone to himself, where he stood silent on the fringes of the group.
"Have a little more sherry. Director," said Miss Hard-castle.
"Well, I don't mind if I do," said Jules. "It's not at all bad sherry, though I think I could tell you of a place where we could get something better. And how are you getting on. Miss Hardcastle, with your reforms of our penal system?"
"Making real headway," she replied. "I think--"
"What I always say," remarked Jules, interrupting her, " is, why not treat crime like any other disease ? What you want to do is to put the man on the right lines-give him a fresh start-give him an interest in life. I dare say you've been reading a little address I gave at Northampton."
"I agreed with you," said Miss Hardcastle. "That's right," said Jules. "I tell you who didn't, though. Old Hingest-and by the by, that was a queer business. You never caught the murderer, did you ? Very last time I met him one or two of us were talking about juvenile offenders, and do you know what he said? He said, ' The trouble with these courts for young criminals nowadays is that they're always binding them over when they ought to be bending them over.' Not bad, was it? Still, as Wither said-and, by the way, where is Wither?"
"I think he should be here any moment now," said Miss Hardcastle.
"I think," said Filostrato, " he have a breakdown with his car. He will be desolated, Mr. Director, not to have given you the welcome."
"Oh, he needn't bother about that," said Jules, " though I did think he'd be here when I arrived. You're looking very well Filostrato. I'm following your work. I look upon you as one of the makers of mankind."
"Yes, yes," said Filostrato, " that is the real business. Already we begin---"
"I try to help you all I can on the non-technical side," said Jules. "It's a battle I've been fighting for years. The whole question of our sex-life. What I always say is that once you get the whole thing out into the open, you don't have any more trouble. I want every boy and girl in the country---"
"God!" said Feverstone to himself. "Forgive me," said Filostrato, who, being a foreigner, had not yet despaired of trying to enlighten Jules. "But that is not precisely the point."
At this moment the clock struck a quarter. "I say," asked Jules, " what time is this dinner at?"
"At quarter to eight," said Miss Hardcastle. "You know," said Jules, " this fellow Wither really ought to be here. I mean to say. It isn't the kind of thing a chap expects, is it?"
"Ecco," said Filostrato. "Someone come."It was indeed Wither who entered the room, in company which Jules had not expected, and Wither's face had certainly good reason to look even more chaotic than usual. He had been bustled round his own institute as if he were a kind of footman. He had not even been allowed to have the supply of air turned on for the Head when they made him take them into the Head's room. And "Merlin " (if it was Merlin) had ignored it. Worst of all, it had gradually become clear to him that this intolerable incubus and his interpreter fully intended to be present at dinner. No one could be more keenly aware than Wither of the absurdity of introducing to Jules a shabby old priest who couldn't speak English, in charge of what looked like a somnambulist chimpanzee dressed up as a Doctor of Philosophy. To tell Jules the real explanation-even if he knew which was the real explanation-was out of the question. It was a minor nuisance that ever since their visit to the Objective Room he had been compelled to have both Frost and Studdock in attendance. Nor did it mend matters that as they approached Jules, and all eyes were fixed upon them, the pseudo-Merlin collapsed into a chair, muttering, and closed his eyes.
"My dear Director," began Wither, a little out of breath, " this is one of the happiest moments of my life. It has been most unfortunate that I was called away. A remarkable coincidence . . . another very distinguished person has joined us at the very same moment. A foreigner . . ."
"Oh," interrupted Jules in a slightly rasping voice, "who's he?"
"Allow me," said Wither, stepping a little to one side. "Do you mean that?" said Jules. The supposed Merlin sat with his arms hanging down on each side of the chair, his eyes closed, his head on one side, and a weak smile on his face. "Is he drunk? Or ill? And who is he, anyway?"
"He is, as I was observing, a foreigner," began Wither. "Well, that doesn't make him go to sleep the moment he is introduced to me, does it?"
"Hush!" said Wither, drawing Jules a little out of the group. "There are circumstances-it would be very difficult to go into it here-I have been taken by surprise. Our distinguished guest has, I admit, certain eccentricities, and ... "
"But who is he?" persisted Jules.
"His name is ... er ... Ambrosius. Dr. Ambrosius, you know."
"Never 'eard of him," snapped Jules. "Very few of us have heard of him yet," said Wither. "But everyone will have heard of him soon. That is why, without in the least . . ."
"And who's that?" asked Jules, indicating the real Merlin. "He looks as if he were enjoying himself."
"Oh, that is merely Dr. Ambrosius's interpreter."
"Interpreter? Can't he talk English?"
"Unfortunately not. He lives rather in a world of his own."
"And can't you get anyone except a priest to act for him ? We don't want that sort of thing here at all. And who are you?" The last question was addressed to Straik, who had thrust his way up to the Director. "Mr. Jules," he said, fixing the latter with a prophetic eye, "I am the bearer of a message to you which you must hear. I--"
"Shut up," said Frost.
"Really, Mr. Straik, really," said Wither. They shouldered him aside.
"Now look 'ere, Mr. Wither," said Jules, "I tell you straight I'm very far from satisfied. Here's another parson. I don't remember the name of any such person coming before me, and it wouldn't have got past me if it had done, see? It seems to me you've been making appointments behind my back and turning the place into a kind of seminary. And that's a thing I won't stand. Nor will the British people."
"I know. I know," said Wither. "I understand your feelings exactly. I am eager and waiting to explain the situation to you. In the meantime, perhaps, as Dr. Ambrosius seems slightly overcome and the dressing-bell has just sounded . . . oh, I beg your pardon. This is Dr. Ambrosius."
The tramp, to whom the real magician had recently turned, was now risen from his chair, and approaching Jules, held out his hand sulkily. Dr. Ambrosius, looking over Jules's shoulder and grinning in an inexplicable fashion, seized it and shook it, as if absent-mindedly, some ten or fifteen times. His breath, Jules noticed, was strong and his grip horny. He was not liking Dr. Ambrosius.
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