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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 30)     
  • That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3)(30) by C.S.Lewis
  • 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 . . ."

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