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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 22)     
  • That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3)(22) by C.S.Lewis
  • What a fool-a babyish, gullible fool-he had been!

    Why had he come to Belbury in the first instance ? Ought not his first interview with the Deputy Director to have warned him. Feverstone's guffaw, that day he had called him an " incurable romantic ", came back to his mind. Feverstone . . . that was how he had come to believe in Wither: on Feverstone's recommendation. Apparently his folly went farther back. How on earth had he come to trust Feverstone? Jane, or Dimble, would have seen through him at once. He had crook written all over him. He was fit only to deceive puppets like Curry and Busby. But then, at the time when he first met Feverstone, he had not thought Curry and Busby puppets. With astonishment he remembered how he had felt about the Progressive Element at Bracton when he was first admitted to its confidence. Was there no beginning to his folly? Had he been a fool all through from the day of his birth ? Even as a schoolboy, when he had ruined his work and half broken his heart trying to get into the society called Grip, and lost his only real friend in doing so ? Even as a child, fighting Myrtle because she would go and talk secrets with Pamela next door?

    There were no moral considerations at this moment in Mark's mind. He looked back on his life, not with shame but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness. He saw himself as a little boy in short trousers, hidden in the shrubbery beside the paling to overhear Myrtle's conversation with Pamela, and trying to ignore the fact that it was not at all interesting when overheard. He saw himself making believe that he enjoyed those Sunday afternoons with the athletic heroes of Grip, while all the time (as he now saw) he was almost homesick for one of the old walks with Pearson

    -Pearson whom he had taken such pains to leave behind. He saw himself in his teens laboriously reading rubbishy grown-up novels and drinking beer when he really enjoyed John Buchan and stone ginger. The hours that he had spent learning the slang of each new circle, the assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the sacrifice of nearly every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element, or the N.I.C.E. -all this came over him with a kind of heartbreak. When had he ever done what he wanted ? Mixed with the people whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The concentrated insipidity of it all filled him with self-pity.

    In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. None of these occurred to him now. He was aware that it was he himself who had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.

    An unexpected idea came into his head. This-this death of his-would be lucky for Jane. He now knew, for the first time, what he had secretly meant to do with Jane. If all had succeeded, if he had become the sort of man he hoped to be, she was to have been the great hostess. Well ... it was lucky for Jane. She seemed to him, as he now thought of her, to have in herself deep wells and knee-deep meadows of happiness, rivers of freshness, enchanted gardens of leisure, which he could not enter but could have spoiled. She was one of those other people-like Pearson, like Denniston, like the Dimbles-who could enjoy things for their own sake. She was not like him. It was well that she should be rid of him. Of course she would get over it. She had tried to do her best, but she didn't really care for him. Nobody ever had, much.

    At that moment came the sound of a key turning in the lock of the cell-door. Instantly physical terror rushed back upon him.

    It was not a policeman who came in. It was a man whose pince-nez, as he glanced towards the light, became opaque windows concealing his eyes. Mark knew him at once and knew that he was at Belbury. It was not this that made him open his own eyes even wider and almost forget his terror in his astonishment. It was the change in the man's appearance-or rather the change in the eyes with which Mark saw him. In one sense everything about Professor Frost was as it had always been-the pointed beard, the extreme whiteness of forehead, and the bright Arctic smile. But Mark could not understand how he had ever managed to overlook something about the man so obvious that any child would have shrunk away from him and any dog would have backed into the corner with raised hackles and bared teeth. Death itself did not seem more frightening than the fact that only six hours ago he would in some measure have trusted this man, and made believe that his society was not disagreeable.



    "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?"

    "See what?"

    "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.

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