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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 24)     
  • That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3)(24) by C.S.Lewis
  • "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.



    "STAND ! Stand where you are and tell me your name and business," said Ransom.

    The ragged figure on the threshold tilted its head a little sideways like one who cannot quite hear. The inner door, between the scullery and the kitchen, clapped to with a loud bang, isolating the three men from the women. The stranger took a pace farther into the room.

    "Sta," said Ransom in a great voice. "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancfi, die mihi qui sis et quam ob causam de nins."

    The Stranger raised his hand and flung back the dripping hair from his forehead. The light fell full on his face, from which Ransom had the impression of an immense quietness.

    His eyes rested on Ransom for a second with no particular interest. Then he turned his head to his left, to where the door was flung back almost against the wall. MacPhee was concealed behind it.

    "Come out," said the Stranger, in Latin. What surprised Ransom was the fact that MacPhee immediately obeyed. He did not look at Ransom but at the Stranger. Then, unexpectedly, he gave an enormous yawn. The Stranger turned to the Director.

    "Fellow," he said in Latin, " tell the Lord of this House that I am come."

    "I am the Master here," said Ransom, in the same language.

    "To be sure!" answered the Stranger. "And yonder whipper-snapper (mavtigia) is without doubt your Bishop." He did not exactly smile, but a look of disquieting amusement came into his keen eyes.

    "Tell your master that I am come," he repeated.

    Ransom looked at him without the flicker of an eyelid.

    "Do you really wish," he said at last, " that I call upon my Masters?"

    "A daw that lives in a hermit's cell has learned before now to chatter book-Latin," said the other. "Let us hear your calling, mannikin {homuncio)."

    "I must use another language for it," said Ransom.

    "A daw could have Greek also in its bill."

    "It is not Greek."

    "Let us hear your Hebrew, then."

    "It is not Hebrew."

    "Nay," answered the other, " if you come to the gabble of barbarians, it will go hard, but I shall out-chatter you. Here is excellent sport."

    "It may happen to seem to you the speech of barbarians," said Ransom, " for it is long since it has been heard. Not even in Numinor was it heard in the streets."

    The Stranger gave no start, and his face remained as quiet as before, if it did not become quieter; but he spoke with a new interest.

    "Your Masters let you play with dangerous toys," he said. "Tell me, slave, what is Numinor?"

    "The true West," said Ransom.

    "Well . . ." said the other. Then, after a pause, he added, "You see, I have already crossed the threshold."

    "I value that at a straw," said Ransom. "Shut the door, MacPhee," he added in English. But MacPhee had sat down and was fast asleep.

    "What is the meaning of this foolery?" said Ransom, looking sharply at the Stranger.

    "If you are indeed the Master of this house, you have no need to be told. Do not fear; your horse-boy will be none the worse."

    "This shall be seen to shortly," said Ransom. "In the meantime, I do not fear your entering the house. I have more cause to fear your escaping. Shut the door if you will, for you see my foot is hurt."

    The Stranger swept back his left hand and slammed the door to. "Now," he said, " what of these Masters of yours?"

    "My Masters are the Oyeresu."

    "Where did you hear that name?" asked the Stranger. "Or, if you are truly of the College, why do they dress you like a slave?"

    "Your own garments," said Ransom, "are not those of a druid."

    "That stroke was well put by," answered the other. "Since you have knowledge, answer me three questions, if you dare."

    "I will answer them if I can. But as for daring, we shall see."

    The Stranger mused for a few seconds; then, speaking in a slightly sing-song voice, he asked the following question:

    "Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk ? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?"

    Ransom replied, "Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. On this side the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a man takes a maiden in marriage they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicate) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place."

    "You have answered well," said the Stranger. "I thought there were but three men in the world that knew this question. But my second may be harder. Where is the ring of Arthur the King? What Lord has such a treasure in his house?"

    "The ring of the King," said Ransom, " is on Arthur's finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon."

    "Well answered," said the Stranger. "In my college it was thought that only two men in the world knew this. But as for my third question, no man knew the answer but myself. Who shall be Pendragon in the time when Saturn descends from his sphere? In what world did he learn war?"

    "In the sphere of Venus I learned war," said Ransom. "In this age Lurga shall descend. I am the Pendragon."

    When he had said this he took a step backwards, for the big man had begun to move and there was a new look in his eyes. Slowly, ponderously, yet not awkwardly, as though a mountain sank like a wave, he sank on one knee; and still his face was almost on a level with the Director's.

    "This throws a quite unexpected burden on our resources," said Wither to Frost, where they both sat in the outer room with the door ajar. "I must confess I had not anticipated any serious difficulty about language."

    "We must get a Celtic scholar at once," said Frost. "Ransom would be the man to advise us if he were available."

    "I met him once," said Wither, half closing his eyes. "He was a man whose penetrations might have been of infinite value, if he had not embraced the cause of reaction. It is a saddening reflection---"

    "Of course," said Frost, interrupting him. "Straik knows modern Welsh. His mother was a Welsh woman."

    "It would certainly be much more satisfactory," said Wither, " if we could, so to speak, keep the whole matter in the family. There would be something very disagreeable -about introducing a Celtic expert from outside."

    "The expert would, of course, be provided for as soon as we could dispense with his services," replied Frost. "It is the waste of time that is the trouble. What progress have you made with Straik?"

    "Oh, really excellent," said the Deputy Director. "Indeed I am almost a little disappointed. I had been thinking that it would be specially fitting and-ah-gratifying if your pupil and mine could be initiated together. We should both, I am sure, have felt . . . But, of course, if Straik is ready some time before Studdock, I should not feel myself entitled to stand in his way."

    "I was thinking," said Frost, " that there must be someone on duty here. He may wake at any moment. Our pupils-Straik and Studdock-could take it in turns. There is no reason why they should not be useful even before their full initiation."

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