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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 18)     
  • That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3)(18) by C.S.Lewis
  • In Wither's room he found Wither and Miss Hardcastle. To Mark's surprise and relief Wither showed no recollection of their last meeting. Indeed, his manner was genial, even deferential, though extremely grave.

    "Good morning, good morning, Mr. Studdock," he said. "It is with the greatest regret that I-er-in short, I would not have kept you from your breakfast unless I had felt that in your own interests you should be placed in possession of the facts at the earliest moment. I feel sure that as the conversation proceeds (pray be seated, Mr. Studdock) you will realise how very wise we have been in securing from the outset a police force-to give it that rather unfortunate name-of our own."

    Mark licked his lips and sat down.

    "My reluctance to raise the question," continued Wither, " would, however, be much more serious if I did not feel able to assure you-in advance you understand-of the confidence which we all feel in you and which I very much hoped " (here for the first time he looked Mark in the eyes) " you were beginning to reciprocate. We regard ourselves here as being so many brothers and-er-sisters : and shall all feel entitled to discuss the subject in the most informal manner possible."

    Miss Hardcastle's voice suddenly broke in.

    "You have lost your wallet, Studdock," she said.

    "Yes. I have. Have you found it?"

    Does it contain three pounds ten, letters from a woman signing herself Myrtle, from the Bursar of Bracton, from G. Hernshaw, and a bill for a dress-suit from Simonds and Son, 32A Market Street, Edgestow?"

    "Well, more or less so."

    "There it is," said Miss Hardcastle. "No you don't!" she added as Mark made a step towards it. "None of that! This wallet was found beside the road about five yards away from Hingest's body."

    "My God!" said Studdock. "You don't mean . . . the thing's absurd."

    "I don't really think," said the Deputy Director, " that you need have the slightest apprehension that there is, at this stage, any radical difference between your colleagues and yourself as to the light in which this painful matter should be regarded. The question is really a constitutional one--"

    "Constitutional?" said Mark angrily. "If l understand her, Miss Hardcastle is accusing me of murder." Wither's eyes looked at him as if from an infinite distance. "Oh," said he, "I don't really think that does justice to Miss Hardcastle's position. That element in the Institute which she represents would be strictly ultra vires in doing anything of the kind within the N.I.C.E.-supposing, but purely of course for purposes of argument, that they wished, or should wish at a later stage, to do so-while in relation to the outside authorities her function--"

    "But it's the outside authorities with whom I'm concerned, I suppose," said Mark. "As far as I can understand, Miss Hardcastle means I'm going to be arrested."

    "On the contrary," said Wither. "This is precisely one of those cases in which you see the enormous value of possessing our own executive. I do not know if Miss Hardcastle has made it perfectly clear to you that it was her officers, and they only, who have made this-er-embarrassing discovery."

    "What do you mean?" said Mark. "If Miss Hardcastle does not think there's a prima facie case against me, why am I being arraigned in this way at all ? And if she does, how can she avoid informing the authorities?"

    "My dear friend," said Wither in an antediluvian tone, " there is not the slightest desire on the part of the Committee to insist on defining, in cases of this sort, the powers of action of our own police, much less, what is here in question, their powers of inaction. I do not think anyone had suggested that Miss Hardcastle should be obliged-in any sense that limited her own initiative-to communicate to outside authorities any facts acquired by her staff in the course of their internal functioning within the N.I.C.E."

    "Do I understand," said Mark, " that Miss Hardcastle thinks she has facts justifying my arrest for the murder of Mr. Hingest, but is kindly offering to suppress them?"

    "You got it now, Studdock," said the Fairy. "But that's not what I want," said Mark. This was not quite true. "I don't want that," he said, speaking rather too loud. "I'm innocent. I think I'd better go to the police-the real police, I mean-at once."

    "If you want to be tried for your life," said the Fairy, " that's another matter."

    "I want to be vindicated," said Mark. "The charge would fall to pieces at once. There was no conceivable motive. And I have an alibi. Everyone knows I slept here that night."

    "There's always a motive, you know," said she, " for anyone murdering anyone. The police are only human. When the machinery's started they naturally want a conviction." Mark assured himself he was not frightened. "There's a letter you wrote," said the Fairy. "What letter?"

    "A letter to a Mr. Pelham, of your own College, dated six weeks ago, in which you say, ' I wish Bill the Blizzard could be moved to a better world.' "

    Like a sharp physical pain the memory of that scribbled note came back to Mark. It was the sort of silly jocularity one used in the Progressive Element-the kind of thing that might be said a dozen times a day in Bracton about an opponent or even about a bore.

    "You don't suppose," said Mark, " that anyone could take that letter to be meant seriously?"

    "Ever tried to make a policeman understand anything?" said the Fairy. "I mean what you call a real policeman." Mark said nothing.

    "And I don't think the alibi is specially good," said the Fairy. "You were seen talking to Bill at dinner. You were seen going out of the front door with him when he left. You were not seen coming back. Nothing is known of your movements till breakfast-time next morning. If you had gone with him by car to the scene of the murder you would have had ample time to walk back and go to bed by about two-fifteen. Frosty night, you know. No reason why your shoes should have been muddy."

    "If I might pick up a point made by Miss Hardcastle," said Wither, " this is a very good illustration of the immense importance of the Institutional Police. There are so many fine shades involved which, so long as they remain in our own family circle (I look upon the N.I.C.E., Mr. Studdock, as one great family), need develop no tendency to lead to any miscarriage of justice."

    "You really advise me, sir," said Mark, " not to go to the police?"

    "To the police?" said Wither as if this idea were completely new. "I don't think, Mr. Studdock, that anyone had quite contemplated your taking any irrevocable action of that sort. It might even be argued that by such an action you would be guilty- unintentionally guilty, I hasten to add-of some degree of disloyalty. You would, of course, be placing yourself outside our protection. . . ."

    "That's the point, Studdock," said the Fairy, "Once you are in the hands of the police you are in the hands of the police."

    The moment of Mark's decision passed by him without his noticing it.

    "Then there's nothing to be done at present?" said Mark.

    "No," said Wither. "No. No immediate action of any official character. It is, of course, very advisable that you should act, as I am sure you will, with the greatest prudence and-er-er-caution for the next few months. As long as you are with us, Scotland Yard would, I feel, see the inconvenience of trying to act unless they had a very clear case indeed."

    "But, look here, damn it!" said Mark. "Aren't you hoping to catch the thief in a day or two ? Aren't you going to do anything?"

    "The thief?" said Wither. "There has been no suggestion so far that the body was rifled."

    "I mean the thief who stole my wallet."

    "Oh-ah-your wallet," said the other, very gently stroking his refined, handsome face. "I see. I understand, do I, that you are advancing a charge of theft against some person or persons unknown---"

    "But, good God!" shouted Mark, "were you not assuming that someone stole it? Do you think I was there myself? Do you both think I am a murderer?"

    "Please!" said the Deputy Director, "please, Mr. Studdock, you really must not shout. Quite apart from the indiscretion of it, I must remind you that you are in the presence of a lady. As far as I can remember, nothing has been said on our side about murder, and no charge of any sort has been made. My only anxiety is to make perfectly clear what we are all doing. I am sure Miss Hardcastle agrees with me."

    "It's all one to me," said the Fairy. "Why Studdock should start bellowing at us because we are trying to keep him out of the dock, I don't know. But that's for him to decide. I've got a busy day and don't want to hang about here all morning."

    "Really," said Mark, "I should have thought it was excusable to--"

    "Pray compose yourself, Mr. Studdock," said Wither.

    "As I said before, we look upon ourselves as one family, and nothing like a formal apology is required. We all understand one another and all dislike-er-scenes."

    "I'm sorry if I was rude," said Mark. "What do you advise me to do?"

    "Don't put your nose outside Belbury, Studdock," said the Fairy.

    "I do not think Miss Hardcastle could have given you better advice," said Wither. "And now that Mrs. Studdock is going to join you here, this will not be a serious hardship. You must look upon this as your home, Mr. Studdock."

    "Oh ... that reminds me, sir," said Mark. "I'm not quite sure about having my wife here. As a matter of fact she's not in very good health---"

    "But surely, in that case, you must be all the more anxious to have her here?"

    "I don't believe it would suit her, sir." The D.D.'s eyes wandered and his voice became lower. "I had almost forgotten, Mr. Studdock," he said, " to congratulate you on your introduction to our Head. We all now feel that you are really one of us in a deeper sense. He is anxious to welcome Mrs. Studdock among us at the earliest opportunity."

    "Why?" said Mark suddenly. Wither looked at Mark with an indescribable smile. "My dear boy," he said. "Unity, you know. The family circle. She'd-she'd be company for Miss Hardcastle !"Before Mark had recovered from this staggeringly new conception, Wither rose and shuffled towards the door. "You must be hungry for your breakfast," he said. "Don't let me delay you. Behave with the greatest caution. And -and "-here his face suddenly changed. The widely opened mouth looked all at once like, the mouth of some animal. "And bring the girl. Do you understand ? Get your wife," he added. "The Head . . . he's not patient."

    As Mark closed the door behind him he immediately thought "Now! They're both in there together. Safe for a minute at least." Without even waiting to get his hat he walked briskly to the front door and down the drive.

    Nothing but physical impossibility would stop him from going to Edgestow and warning Jane. After that he had no plans.

    Now he was past the road; he was in the belt of trees. Scarcely a minute had passed since he had left the D.D.'s office and no one had overtaken him. But yesterday's adventure was happening over again. A tall, stooped, shuffling, creaking figure, humming a tune, barred his way. Mark had never fought. Ancestral impulses lodged in his body directed the blow which he aimed at this senile obstructor. But there was no impact. The shape had suddenly vanished.

    Those who know best were never fully agreed as to the explanation of this episode. It may have been that Mark, both then and on the previous day, being overwrought, saw an hallucination. It may be that the appearance of Wither which haunted so many rooms and corridors of Belbury was, in one sense of the word, a ghost-one of those sensory impressions which a strong personality in its last decay can imprint, most commonly after death but sometimes before it, on the very structure of a building. Or it may, after all, be that souls who have lost the intellectual good do indeed receive in return, and for a short period, the vain privilege of thus reproducing themselves in many places as wraiths. At any rate the thing, whatever it was, vanished.

    The path ran diagonally across a field of grass, now powdered with frost, and the sky was hazy blue. Then he went across a road, across a stream by a footbridge, and so into the frozen ruts of the lane that led him into Courthampton.

    The first thing he saw as he came into the village street was a farm cart. A woman and three children sat beside the man who was driving, and in the cart were piled chests of drawers, mattresses, and a canary in a cage. Immediately after it came a man and woman and child on foot wheeling a perambulator: it also was piled with small household property. After that came a family pushing a hand-cart, and then a heavily loaded trap, and then an old car. A steady stream of such traffic was passing through the village. Mark had never seen war: if he had he would have recognised at once the signs of flight, the message "Enemy behind ".

    It took him a long time to get to the crossroads by the pub, where he could find a glazed and framed timetable of buses. There would not be one to Edgestow till twelve-fifteen. He hung about, understanding nothing of what he saw. At eleven-thirty the pub opened. He went in and ordered a pint and some bread and cheese.

    The bar was at first empty. During the next half-hour men dropped in one by one till about four were present. For some time they did not talk at all. Then a very little man with a face like an old potato observed to no one in particular, "I seen old Rumbold the other night."No one replied for five minutes, and then a very young man in leggings said, "I reckon he's sorry he ever tried it."' It was only when the subject of Rumbold was thoroughly exhausted that the talk, very indirectly and by gradual stages, began to throw some light on the stream of refugees. "Still coming out," said one man. "Ah," said another. "Can't be many left there by now."

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