WET AND WINDY NIGHT
"WELL," said Dimble, " there's no one here."
"He was here a moment ago," said Denniston.
"You're sure you did see someone?" said Dimble.
"Hush! Listen!" said Jane.
"That's only the old donkey," said Dimble presently, " moving about at the top."
There was another silence.
"He seems to have been pretty extravagant with his matches," said Denniston, glancing at the trodden earth in the firelight. "One would expect a tramp---"
"On the other hand," said Dimble, " one would not expect Merlin to have brought a box of matches with him from the Fifth Century."
"I'm looking at this mud," said Denniston, who had been stooping and using his torch. Now he suddenly straightened himself. "Look," he said, " there have been several people here. Look. Can't you see, sir?"
"Aren't they our own footprints?" said Dimble.
"Some of them are pointing the wrong way. Look at that- and that."
"Might they be the tramp himself?" said Dimble. "If it was a tramp."
"He couldn't have walked up that path without our seeing him," said Jane.
Come," said Dimble. "Let's follow them up to the top.
As they reached the lip of the hollow, mud changed into grass under foot and the footprints disappeared. It had turned into a fine night: Orion dominated the whole sky.
The Deputy Director hardly ever slept. When it became necessary for him to do so, he took a drug, but the necessity was rare, for the mode of consciousness he experienced at most hours of day or night had long ceased to be exactly like what other men call waking. The manner and outward attitude which he had adopted half a century ago were now an organisation which functioned almost independently, like a gramophone. While the brain and lips carried on his work, and built up day by day for those around him the vague and formidable personality which they knew so well, his inmost self was free to pursue its own life. A detachment of the spirit not only from the senses but even from the reason was now his.
Hence he was still, in a sense, awake an hour after Frost had left him. His eyes were not shut. The face had no expression; the real man was far away, suffering, enjoying, or inflicting whatever such souls do suffer, enjoy, or inflict when the cord that binds them to the natural order is stretched out to its utmost. When the telephone rang at his elbow he took up the receiver without a start.
"This is Stone, sir," came a voice. "We have found the chamber."
"It was empty, sir."
"Are you sure, my dear Mr. Stone, that you have found the right place ? It is possible . . ."
"Oh yes, sir. Stonework and some Roman brick. And a kind of slab in the middle, like an altar or a bed."
"And am I to understand there was no one there? No sign of occupation?"
"Well, sir, it seemed to us to have been recently disturbed."
"Pray be as explicit as possible, Mr. Stone."
"Well, sir, there was an exit-I mean a tunnel, leading out of it to the south. We went up this tunnel at once. It comes out about eight hundred yards away, outside the area of the wood. We got out to the open air. But something had been smashed-up there quite recently. It looked as if it had been done by explosives. As if the end of the tunnel had been walled up and had some depth of earth on top of it, and as if someone had recently blasted his way out."
"Continue, Mr. Stone. What did you do next?"
"I used the order you had given me, sir, to collect all the police available and have sent off search-parties for the man you described."
"I see. And how did you describe him to them?"
"Just as you did, sir: an old man with a long beard, probably in unusual clothes. It occurred to me at the last moment to add that he might have no clothes at all."
"Why did you add that, Mr. Stone?"
"Well, sir, I didn't know how long he'd been there, and I'd heard about clothes preserved in a place like that and falling to pieces as soon as the air was admitted. I hope you won't imagine for a moment that I'm trying to find out anything you don't choose to tell me. But I---"
"You were right, Mr. Stone," said Wither, " in thinking that anything remotely resembling inquisitiveness on your part might have the most disastrous consequences. And what did you instruct your search-parties to do on finding any such-er-person?"
"Well, sir, I sent my assistant. Father Doyle, with one party, because he knows Latin. And I gave Inspector Wrench the ring you gave me and put him in charge of the second. The best I could do for the third party was to see that it contained someone who knew Welsh."
"Well, Mr. Stone, I am, on the whole, and with certain inevitable reservations, moderately satisfied with your conduct of this affair. I believe that I may be able to present it in a favourable light to my colleagues. If only I could persuade-say Miss Hardcastle and Mr. Studdock-to share my appreciation of your very real qualities, you would need to have no apprehensions about your career or-ah-your security."
"But what do you want me to do, sir?"
"My dear young friend, there are only two errors which would be fatal to one placed in the peculiar situation which certain parts of your previous conduct have unfortunately created for you. On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action might have consequences from which even I could not protect you. But as long as you keep quite clear of these two extremes, there is no reason (speaking unofficially) why you should not be safe." Without waiting for a reply, he hung up the receiver.
"Oughtn't we to be nearly at the gate we climbed over?" said Dimble.
It was lighter now that the rain had stopped, but the wind had risen and was roaring about them. The branches of the hedge swayed and dipped and rose again as if they were lashing the bright stars.
"It's a good deal longer than I remembered," said Denniston.
"Hullo!" said Jane sharply. "What's this?"
All listened. Because of the wind, the unidentified noise which they were straining to hear seemed quite distant at one moment, and then, next moment, with shouts of "Look out!"-"Go away you great brute!" and the like, all were shrinking back into the hedge as the plosh-plosh of a horse cantering on soft ground passed close beside them. A cold gobbet of mud struck Denniston in the face.
"Oh, look! Look!"cried Jane. "Stop him. Quick!"
"Stop him?" said Denniston, who was trying to clean his face. "What on earth for?"
"Oh, shout out to him, Dr. Dimble," said Jane, in an agony of impatience. "Come on. Run! Didn't you see?"
"There's a man on his back," gasped Jane. She was tired and out of breath and had lost a shoe.
"A man?" said Denniston: and then, "By God, sir, Jane's right. Look, look there! Against the sky ... to your left."
"We can't overtake him," said Dimble.
"Hi! Stop! Come back! Friends-amis-amid," bawled Denniston.
Dimble was not able to shout for the moment. And while he stood trying to get his breath all the others suddenly cried "Look " : for high among the stars, looking unnaturally large and many legged, the shape of the horse appeared as it leaped a hedge some twenty yards away, and on its back, with some streaming garment blown far out behind him in the wind, the great figure of a man. It seemed to Jane that he was looking back over his shoulder as though he mocked. Then came a splash and thud as the horse alighted on the far side; and then nothing but wind and starlight again.
"You are in danger," said Frost, when he had finished locking the door of Mark's cell, " but you are also within reach of a great opportunity."
"I gather," said Mark, "I am at the Institute and not in a police station."
"Yes. That makes no difference to the danger. The Institute will soon have official powers of liquidation. It has anticipated them. Hingest and Carstairs have both been liquidated."
"If you are going to kill me," said Mark, " why all this farce of a murder charge?"
"Before going on," said Frost, "I must ask you to be objective. Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. You must observe these feelings in yourself in an objective manner. Do not let them distract your attention from the facts."
"I see," said Mark. He was acting while he said it- trying to sound at once faintly hopeful and slightly sullen, ready to be worked upon. But within, his new insight into Belbury kept him resolved not to believe one word the other said, not to accept (though he might feign acceptance) any offer he made.
"The murder charge against you and the alternations in your treatment have been part of a programme with a well defined end in view," said Frost. "It is a discipline through which everyone is passed before admission to the Circle."
Only a few days ago Mark would have swallowed any hook with that bait on it; and even now . . .
"I don't quite see the purpose of it," he said aloud. "It is to promote objectivity. A circle bound together by subjective feelings of mutual confidence and liking would be useless. Those are chemical phenomena.
They could all, in principle, be produced by injections. In so far as there must be social feelings between members of the circle it is, perhaps, better that they should be feelings of dislike. There is less risk of their being confused with the real nexus."
"The circle?" said Studdock, acting a tremulous eagerness. But it was perilously easy for him to act it.
"Yes," said Frost. "You have been selected as a possible candidate for admission. If you do not gain admission, or if you reject it, it will be necessary to destroy you."
" it-it seems rather a formidable decision," said Mark.
"That is merely a proposition about the state of your own body at the moment. If you please, I will go on to give you the necessary information. I must begin by telling you that neither the Deputy Director nor I are responsible for shaping the policy of the Institute."
"The Head?" said Mark.
"No. Filostrato and Wilkins are quite deceived about the Head. They have, indeed, carried out a remarkable experiment. But Alcasan's mind is not the mind we are in contact with when the Head speaks."
"Do you mean Alcasan is really . . . dead?"
"In the present state of our knowledge," said Frost, " that question has no meaning. But the cortex and vocal organs in Alcasan's head are used by a different mind. And now, attend carefully. You have probably not heard of macrobes."
"Microbes?" said Mark in bewilderment. "But of course--"
"I did not say microbes, I said macrobes. The formation of the word explains itself. Below the level of animal life we have long known that there are microscopic organisms. Their actual results on human life have, of course, made up a large part of history."
"Go on," said Mark. Ravenous curiosity was moving beneath his conscious determination to stand on guard.
"I have now to inform you that there are similar organisms above the level of animal life. When I say ' above' I am not speaking biologically. I mean that they are more permanent, dispose of more energy, and have greater intelligence."
"They must be pretty nearly human, then."
"You have misunderstood me. When I said they transcended the animals, I was including the most efficient animal, Man. The macrobe is more intelligent than Man."
"But how is it in that case that we have had no communication with them?"
"It is not certain that we have not. But in primitive times it was opposed by prejudice. But though there has been little intercourse, there has been profound influence. Their effect on human history has been greater than that of the microbes, though equally unrecognised. The real causes of all the principal events are quite unknown to the historians."
"I think I'll sit down, if you don't mind," said Mark, resuming his seat on the floor.
"The vocal organs and brain taken from Alcasan," Frost continued, " have become the conductors of a regular intercourse between the macrobes and our own species. The circle to which you may be admitted is the organ of that co-operation between the two species which has created a new situation for humanity. The change is far greater than that which turned the sub-man into the man."
"These organisms, then," said Mark, "are friendly to humanity?"
"Friendship is a chemical phenomenon; so is hatred. Both of them presupposes organisms of our own type."
"I didn't mean ' friendly ' in that sense. I meant, were their aims compatible with our own?"
"What do you mean by our own aims?"
"Well-I suppose-the scientific reconstruction of the human race-the elimination of war and poverty-a fuller exploitation of nature-the preservation and extension of our species, in fact."
"I do not think this pseudo-scientific language really modifies the essentially subjective and instinctive basis of the ethics you are describing."
"Surely," said Mark, " one requires a large population for the full exploitation of nature, if for nothing else ? And surely war is disgenic and reduces efficiency?"
"That idea is a survival from conditions which are rapidly being altered. A few centuries ago, a large agricultural population was essential; and war destroyed types which were then useful. But every advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people required. A large, unintelligent population is now a dead-weight. The importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved. It was not the great technocrats of Koenigsberg or Moscow who supplied the casualties in the siege of Stalingrad. The effect of modern war is to eliminate retrogressive types, while sparing the technocracy and increasing its hold upon public affairs. In the new age, what has hitherto been merely the intellectual nucleus of the race is to become, by gradual stages, the race itself. You are to conceive the species as an animal which has discovered how to simplify nutrition and locomotion to such a point that the old complex organs and the large body which contained them are no longer necessary. The masses are therefore to disappear. The body is to become all head. The human race is to become all Technocracy."
"I see," said Mark. "I had thought that the intelligent nucleus would be extended by education."
"That is a pure chimera. The great majority of the human race cannot be educated. Even if they could, the day for a large population has passed. It has served its function as a kind of cocoon for Technocratic and Objective Man. Now, the macrobes, and the selected humans who co-operate with them, have no further use for it."
"The last two wars, then, were not disasters in your view?
"On the contrary, they were simply the first two of the sixteen major wars which are scheduled to take place in this century."
Mark sat with his eyes fixed on the floor. He was occupied with the conflict between his resolution not to trust these men, and the terrible strength of an opposite emotion. For here, here surely at last (so his desire whispered him) was the true inner circle of all, the circle whose centre was outside the human race-the ultimate secret, the supreme power, the last initiation. The fact that it was almost completely horrible did not in the least diminish its attraction. Nothing that lacked the tang of horror would have been quite strong enough to satisfy the delirious excitement which now set his temples hammering.
A knocking which had been obscurely audible for some time now became so loud that Frost turned to the door. "Go away," he said, raising his voice. "What is the meaning of this impertinence?" The noise of someone shouting was heard, and the knocking went on. Frost's smile widened as he turned and opened the door. Instantly a piece of paper was put into his hand. As he read it, he started violently. Without glancing at Mark, he left the cell. Mark heard the door locked behind him.
"What friends those two are!" said Ivy Maggs. She was referring to Pinch the cat and Mr. Bultitude the bear. The latter was sitting up with his back against the warm wall by the kitchen fire. The cat, after walking to and fro with erected tail and rubbing herself against his belly, had finally curled up and gone to sleep between his legs.
Mrs. Dimble, who sat farther back in the kitchen, darning as if for dear life, pursed her lips a little as Ivy Maggs spoke. She could not go to bed. She wished they would all keep quiet.
"When we use the word Friends of those two creatures," said MacPhee, "I doubt we are being merely anthropomorphic. There's no evidence for it."
"What's she go making up to him for, then?" asked Ivy.
"Well," said MacPhee, "maybe there'd be a desire for warmth-she's away in out of the draught there. And likely enough some obscure transferred sexual impulses."
"Really, Mr. MacPhee," said Ivy with great indignation. "To say those things about two dumb animals! I'm sure I never did see Pinch--"
"I said transferred," interrupted MacPhee dryly. "And anyway, they like the friction as a means of rectifying irritations set up by parasites. Now, you'll observe--"
"If you mean they have fleas," said Ivy, " you know as well as anyone they have no such thing."
"What do you think, sir?" added Ivy, looking at the Director.
"Me?" said Ransom. "I think MacPhee is introducing into animal life a distinction that doesn't exist there, and then trying to determine on which side of that distinction the feelings of Pinch and Bultitude fall. You've got to become human before physical cravings are distinguishable from affections-as you have to become spiritual before affections are distinguishable from charity. What is going on in them isn't one or other of these things: it is one of Barfield's ' ancient unities '."
Mrs. Dimble leaned her head towards Camilla and said in a whisper, "I do wish Mr. MacPhee could be persuaded to go to bed. It's perfectly unbearable at a time like this."
"Was that only the wind?" said Grace Ironwood.
"It sounded to me like a horse," said Mrs. Dimble.
"Here," said MacPhee jumping up. "Get out of the way, Mr. Bultitude, till I get my gum boots. It'll be those two horses of Broad's again, tramping all over my celery. Why the man can't keep them shut up . . ." he was bundling himself into his mackintosh as he spoke.
"My crutch, please, Camilla," said Ransom. "Come back, MacPhee. We will go to the door together, you and I. Ladies, stay where you are."
There was a look on his face which some of those present had not seen before. A moment later Ransom and MacPhee stood alone in the scullery. The back door was so shaking with the wind that they did not know whether someone were knocking or not.
"Now," said Ransom, " open it."
For a second MacPhee worked with the bolts. Then the storm flung the door against the wall and he was momentarily pinned behind it. Ransom, leaning forward on his crutch, saw in the light from the scullery, outlined against the blackness, a huge horse, all in a lather of sweat and foam, its yellow teeth laid bare, its ears flattened against its skull, and its eyes flaming. It had neither saddle, stirrup, nor bridle; but at that very moment a man leapt off its back. He seemed both very tall and very fat, almost a giant. His reddish-grey hair and beard were blown all about his face so that it was hardly visible; and it was only after he had taken a step forward that Ransom noticed his clothes-the ragged, ill-fitting khaki coat, baggy trousers, and boots that had lost the toes.
In a great room at Belbury, where the fire blazed and wine and silver sparkled on side-tables, and a great bed occupied the centre of the floor, the Deputy Director watched while four men carried in a burden on a stretcher. As they removed the blankets and transferred the occupant of the stretcher to the bed, Wither's interest became intense. What he saw was a naked human body, alive, but apparently unconscious. He ordered the attendants to place hot-water bottles at its feet and raise the head with pillows; when they had withdrawn he drew a chair to the foot of the bed and sat down to study the face of the sleeper. The head was very large, though perhaps it looked larger than it was because of the unkempt beard and the tangled grey hair. For a quarter of an hour he sat thus: then the door opened and Professor Frost came in.
He walked to the bedside, bent down and looked closely into the stranger's face.
"Is he asleep?" whispered Wither. "I think not. It is more like some kind of trance."
"You have no doubts, I trust?"
"Where did they find him?"
"Quarter of a mile from the entrance to the souterrain. They had the track of bare feet almost all the way."
"You will make provision about Stone?"
"Yes. But what do you think?"-he pointed with his eyes to the bed.
"I think it is he," said Frost. "The place is right. The nudity is hard to account for on any other hypothesis. The skull is the kind I expected."
"But the face?"
"Yes. There are certain traits which are a little disquieting."
"I could have sworn," said Wither, " that I knew the look of a Master-even the look of one who could be made into a Master. You understand me . . . one sees at once that Straik or Studdock might do; that Miss Hardcastle, with all her excellent qualities, would not."
"Yes. Perhaps we must be prepared for great crudities in ... him. Who knows what the technique of the Atlantean Circle was really like?"
"Certainly, one must not be-ah-narrow-minded. One can suppose that the Masters of that age were not quite so sharply divided from the common people as we are. All sorts of emotional, and even instinctive, elements were perhaps still tolerated in the Great Atlantean which we have had to discard."
Instead of replying. Frost signalled to his companion. The Sleeper had opened his eyes.
As the seconds passed Wither's main impression of the face was its caution. But there was nothing intense or uneasy about it. It had an habitual, unemphatic defensiveness.
Wither rose to his feet, and cleared his throat.
"Magister Merline," he said, "Sapienlissime Britonum, secreti secretorum possessor, incredibili quodam gaudio afficimur quod te domum nostrum accipere nobis-ah-contingit. Scito nos etiam haud imperitos esse magnae artis-et-ut ita dicam . . ."
But his voice died away. It was too obvious that the Sleeper was taking no notice of what he said. Was there, then, some error in his own pronunciation ? But he felt by no means sure that this man could not understand him. The total lack of interest in his face suggested rather that he was not listening.
Frost took a decanter from the table and poured out a glass of red wine. He then returned to the bedside, bowed deeply, and handed it to the stranger. The latter sat up in bed, revealing a huge hairy chest and lean, muscular arms. His eyes turned to the table and he pointed. Frost went back to it and touched a different decanter. The stranger shook his head and pointed again.
"I think," said Wither, " that our very distinguished guest is trying to indicate the jug."
"It contains beer," said Frost.
"Well, it is hardly appropriate-still, perhaps, we know so little of the customs of that age . . ."
While he was still speaking Frost had filled a pewter mug with beer and offered it to their guest. For the first time a gleam of interest came into that cryptic face. The man snatched the mug eagerly, pushed back his disorderly moustache from his lips, drank, set it down, wiped his wet lips with the back of his hand, and heaved a long sigh. Then he turned his attention once more to the table.
For about twenty minutes the two old men fed him. All sorts of delicacies had been provided, but the stranger devoted his attention entirely to cold beef, chicken, pickles, bread, cheese, and butter. The butter he ate neat, off the end of a knife. He took the chicken bones in both hands, placing them under the pillow when he had done. When he had eaten, he signalled for a second pint of beer, drank it at two long draughts, wiped his mouth on the sheet and his nose on his hand, and seemed to be composing himself for further slumber.
"Ah-er-domine," said Wither, " nihil magis mihi displic-eret quam tibi ullo modo-ah-molestum esse. Attamen, venia tua . . ." 1
But the man was taking no notice at all. Frost and Wither exchanged enquiring glances.
"There is no approach to this room, is there," said Frost, " except through the next one?"
"No," said Wither.
"Let us go out there and discuss the situation. We can leave the door ajar."
When Mark found himself left suddenly alone by Frost, his first sensation was an unexpected lightness of heart. In the very midst of his fears, a strange sense of liberation had sprung up. The relief of no longer trying to win these men's confidence, the shuffling off of miserable hopes, was almost exhilarating. He might lose the fight.. But at least it was now his side against theirs. And he could talk of " his side " now. Already he was with Jane and with all she symbolised.
The approval of one's own conscience is a very heady draught; and specially for those who are not accustomed to it. Within two minutes Mark had passed from that first sense of liberation to a conscious attitude of courage, and thence into unrestrained heroics. It wasn't everyone, after all, who could have resisted an invitation like Frost's. An invitation that beckoned you right across the frontiers of human life ... a touch on that infinitely secret cord which was the real nerve of all history. How it would have attracted him once!
Would have attracted him once. . . . Suddenly, like a thing that leaped to him across infinite distances with the speed of light, desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable desire).
"Ah-er-sir-nothing would be farther from my wish than to be in any way troublesome to you. At the same time, with your pardon took him by the throat. The merest hint will convey to those who have felt it the quality of the emotion which now shook him, like a dog shaking a rat: for others, no description perhaps will avail. Many writers speak of it in terms of lust: a description illuminating from within, misleading from without. It has nothing to do with the body. But it is in two respects like lust. For like lust, it disenchants the universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt- love, ambition, hunger, lust itself-appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children. The infinite attraction of this dark thing sucked all other passions into itself. But it was like lust in another respect also. It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant. And so it was here. These creatures of which Frost had spoken-and he did not doubt now that they were locally present with him in the cell-breathed death on the human race and on all joy. Not despite this but because of this, the terrible gravitation sucked and tugged and fascinated him towards them. The image of Wither's face rose to his memory; and this time he did not merely loathe it. He noted, with shuddering satisfaction, the signs it bore of a shared experience between them.
At the same moment it came back to him that he would probably be killed. As soon as he thought of that, he became once more aware of the cell. He blinked his eyes. What had he been thinking and feeling while he forgot death?
Gradually he realised that he had sustained some sort of attack, and that he had put up no resistance; and with that realisation a new kind of dread entered his mind. Though he was theoretically a materialist, he had all his life believed quite inconsistently and even carelessly in the freedom of his own will. When he had resolved some hours ago to trust the Belbury crew no farther, he had taken it for granted that he would be able to do what he resolved. It had never occurred to him that his mind could thus be changed for him in an instant of time, beyond recognition. If that sort of thing could happen ... It was unfair. Here was a man trying to do what was obviously the right thing-the thing that Jane and the Dimbles would have approved of. You might have expected that when a man behaved in that way the universe would back him up. Yet the very moment you tried to be good, the universe let you down. That was what you got for your pains.
The cynics, then, were right. But at this thought, he stopped sharply. Some flavour that came with it had given him pause. Was this the other mood beginning again? Oh, not that, at any price! He clenched his hands. No, no, no! He could not stand this much longer. "Oh, don't, don't let me go back into it!" he said; and then louder, "Don't, don't!" All that could be called himself went into that cry; and the dreadful consciousness of having played his last card began to turn slowly into a sort of peace. There was nothing more to be done. Unconsciously he allowed his muscles to relax. His young body was very tired by this time, and even the hard floor was grateful to it. The cell also seemed to be somehow emptied and purged, as if it, too, were tired after the conflicts it had witnessed-emptied like a sky after rain, tired like a child after weeping. He fell asleep.