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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 33)     
  • That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3)(33) by C.S.Lewis
  • Suddenly the confusion of cries ran all together into one thin, long-drawn noise of terror. Everyone had become more frightened. Something had darted across the floor between the two long tables and disappeared under one of them. Perhaps half the people present had not seen what it was-had only caught a gleam of black and tawny. But Mark had recognised it. It was a tiger.

    For the first time that evening everybody realised how many hiding-places the room contained. The tiger might be under any of the tables. It might be in any of the deep bay windows, behind the curtains. There was a screen across one corner of the room, too.

    It is not to be supposed that even now none of the company kept their heads. With loud appeals to the whole room or with urgent whispers to their immediate neighbours they tried to stem the panic, to arrange an orderly retreat from the room, to indicate how the brute could be lured or scared into the open and shot. The doom of gibberish frustrated their efforts. They could not arrest the two movements which were going on. The majority had not seen Miss Hardcastle lock the door: they were pressing towards it, to get out at all costs. A large minority, on the other hand, knew that the door was locked. There must be another door; they were pressing to the opposite end of the room to find it. The whole centre of the room was occupied by the meeting of these two waves-a huge scrum, at first noisy with efforts at explanation, but soon, as the struggle thickened, silent except for the sound of labouring breath, kicking or trampling feet, and meaningless muttering.

    Four or five of these combatants lurched heavily against a table, pulling off the cloth in their fall and with it all the fruit-dishes, decanters, glasses, plates. Out of that confusion with a howl of terror broke the tiger. It happened so quickly that Mark hardly took it in. He saw the hideous head, the cat's snarl of the mouth, the flaming eyes. He heard a shot-the last. Then the tiger had disappeared again. Something fat and white and bloodied was down among the feet of the scrummers. Mark could not recognise it at first, for the face, from where he stood, was upside down, and the grimaces disguised it until it was quite dead. Then he recognised Miss Hardcastle.

    Wither and Frost were no longer to be seen. There was a growling close at hand. Mark turned, thinking he had located the tiger. Then he caught out of the corner of his eye a glimpse of something smaller and greyer. He thought it was an Alsatian. If so, the dog was mad. It ran along the table, its tail between its legs, slavering. A woman, standing with her back to the table, turned, saw it, tried to scream, next moment went down as the creature leaped at her throat. It was a wolf. "Ai-ai!!" squealed Filostrato, and jumped on the table. Something else had darted between his feet. Mark saw it streak across the floor and enter the scrum and wake that mass of interlocked terror into new and frantic convulsions. It was some kind of snake.

    Above the chaos of sounds which now awoke-there seemed to be a new animal in the room every minute- there came at last one sound in which those still capable of understanding could take comfort. Thud-thud-thud; the door was being battered from the outside. It was a huge folding door, a door by which a small locomotive could almost enter, for the room was made in imitation of Versailles. Already one or two of the panels were splintering. The noise maddened those who had made that door their goal. It seemed also to madden the animals. As if in imitation a great gorilla leaped on the table where Jules had sat and began drumming on its chest. Then, with a roar, it jumped down into the crowd.

    At last the door gave. Both wings gave. The passage, framed in the doorway, was dark. Out of the darkness there came a grey snaky something. It swayed in the air: then began methodically to break off the splintered wood on each side and make the doorway clear. Then Mark saw distinctly how it swooped down, curled itself round a man-Steele, he thought-and lifted him bodily high off the floor. After that, monstrous, improbable, the huge shape of the elephant thrust its way into the room. It stood for a second with Steele writhing in the curl of its trunk and then dashed him to the floor. It trampled him. After that it raised head and trunk again and brayed horribly, then plunged straight forward into the room, trumpeting and trampling-continuously trampling like a girl treading grapes, heavily and soon wetly trampling in a mash of blood and bones, of flesh, wine, fruit, and sodden table-cloth. Then everything went black and Mark knew no more.

    When Mr. Bultitude came to his senses he had found himself in a dark place full of unfamiliar smells. The smells were, on the whole, promising. He perceived that food was in the neighbourhood and-more exciting-a female of his own species. There were a great many other animals about too, apparently, but that was irrelevant. He decided to go and find both the female bear and the food. It was then he discovered that walls met him in three directions and bars in the fourth: he could not get out. This, combined with an inarticulate want for the human companionship to which he was accustomed, gradually plunged him into depression. Sorrow such as only animals know-huge seas of disconsolate emotion with not one little raft of reason to float on-drowned him fathoms deep. In his own fashion he lifted up his voice and wept.

    And yet, not far away from him, another captive was almost equally engulfed. Mr. Maggs, seated in a little white cell, chewed steadily on his great sorrow as only a simple man can chew. An educated man in his circumstances would have been thinking how this new idea of cure instead of punishment, so humane in seeming, had in fact deprived the criminal of all rights and by taking away the name punishment made the thing infinite. But Mr. Maggs thought all the time simply of one thing: that this was the day he had counted on all through his sentence, that he had expected by this time to be having his tea at home with Ivy (she'd have got something tasty for him the first night) and that it hadn't happened. He sat quite still. About once in every two minutes a single large tear trickled down his cheek. He wouldn't have minded so much if they'd let him have a packet of fags.

    It was Merlin who brought release to both. He had left the dining-room as soon as the curse of Babel was well fixed upon the enemies. No one saw him go. Wither had heard his voice calling loud and intolerably glad above the riot of nonsense, "Qyi Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis."

    "They that have despised the Word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away."

    After that he did not see him again, nor the tramp either. Merlin had gone and spoiled his house. He had liberated beasts and men. The animals that were already maimed he killed with instantaneous power, swift as the mild shafts of Artemis. To Mr. Maggs he had handed a written message. It ran as follows:

    "DEAREST TOM, -I do hope your well and the Director here is one of the right sort and he says to come as quick as you can to the Manor of St. Anne's. And don't go through Edgestow Tom whatever you do but come any way you can. No more now. Lots of love ever your own IVY."

    The other prisoners he let go where they pleased. The tramp, finding Merlin's back turned on him for a second, made his escape, first into the kitchen and thence, reinforced with all the edibles his pockets would hold, into the wide world.

    The beasts, except for one donkey who disappeared about the same time as the tramp Merlin sent to the dining-room, maddened with his voice and touch. But he retained Mr. Bultitude. Even without the brilliantine there was that in Merlin which exactly suited the bear. He laid his hand on its head and whispered in its ear, and its dark mind filled with excitement; long forbidden and forgotten pleasures were suddenly held out to it. Down the long, empty passages of Belbury it padded behind them. Saliva dripped from its mouth and it was beginning to growl. It was thinking of warm, salt tastes, of the pleasant resistances of bone, of things to crunch and lick and worry.

    Mark felt himself shaken; then the cold shock of water dashed in his face. With difficulty he sat up. The room was empty except for the bodies of the distorted dead. The unmoved electric light glared down on hideous confusion-food and filth, spoiled luxury and mangled men, each more hideous by reason of the other. It was the supposed Basque priest who had roused him. "Surge, miselle," he said, helping Mark to his feet. Mark rose; he had some cuts and bruises and his head ached.

    "Get up, wretched boy." looked with bewilderment on the face of the stranger and found that a letter was being put into his hand. "Your wife awaits you ", it ran, "at the Manor at St. Anne's on the Hill. Come by road as best you can. Do not go near Edgestow.-A. DENNISTON."

    Merlin laid a hand on his shoulder, and impelled him over all the tinkling and slippery havoc to the door. His fingers sent a prickly sensation through Mark's skin. He was led down to the cloakroom, made to fling on a coat and hat (neither were his own) and thence out under the stars, bitter cold and two o'clock in the morning, Sirius bitter green, a few flakes of dry snow beginning to fall. He hesitated. The stranger, with his open hand, struck him on the back; Mark's bones ached at the memory as long as he lived. Next moment he found himself running as he had never run since boyhood; not in fear, but because his legs would not stop. When he became master of them again he was half a mile from Belbury, and looking back, he saw a light in the sky.

    Wither was not killed in the dining-room. He knew all the possible ways out of the room, and before the coming of the tiger he had slipped away. He understood what was happening, not perfectly, yet better than anyone else. He saw that the Basque interpreter had done the whole thing. And, by that, he knew that powers more than human had come down to destroy Belbury; only one in the saddle of whose soul rode Mercury himself could thus have unmade language. And this told him something worse. It meant that his own dark Masters had been out in their calculations. They had talked of a barrier, had assured him that nothing from outside could pass the Moon's orbit. All their polity was "based on the belief that Tellus was blockaded. Therefore he knew that everything was lost.

    It is incredible how little this knowledge moved him. It could not, because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain. Now, even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last moments before damnation are not always dramatic. Often the man knows that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.

    Straik and Filostrato were also still alive. They met in one of the cold, lighted passages, so far from the dining-room that the noise of the carnage was but a faint murmur. Filostrato was hurt, his right arm badly mauled. They did not speak-both knew that the attempt would be useless-but walked on side by side. Filostrato was intending to get round to the garage by a back way: he thought that he might still be able to drive, in a fashion, at least as far as Sterk.

    As they rounded a corner they saw what they had expected never to see again-the Deputy Director, stooped, creaking, pacing, humming his tune. Filostrato did not want to go with him, but Wither, as if noticing his wounded condition, offered him an arm. Filostrato tried to decline it: nonsense syllables came from his mouth. Wither took his left arm firmly; Straik seized the other, the mauled arm. Squealing and shivering with pain, Filostrato accompanied them perforce. But worse awaited him. He was not an initiate, he knew nothing of the Dark Eldils. He believed that his skill had really kept Alcasan's brain alive. Hence, even in his pain, he cried out with horror when he found the other two drawing him through the ante-room of the Head and into the Head's presence without pausing for any of those antiseptic preparations which he had always imposed on his colleagues. He tried vainly to tell them that one moment of such carelessness might undo all his work. But this time it was in the room itself that his conductors began undressing. And this time they took off all their clothes.

    They plucked off his, too. When the right sleeve, stiff with blood, would not move. Wither got a knife from the ante-room and ripped it. In the end, the three men stood na**d before the Head. Then the high ridge of terror from which Filostrato was never again to descend, was reached; what he thought impossible began to happen. No one had read the dials, adjusted the pressures or turned on the air and the artificial saliva. Yet words came out of the dry mouth of the dead man's head. "Adore!" it said.

    Filostrato felt his companions forcing his body forwards, then up again, then forwards and downwards a second time. He was compelled to bob up and down in rhythmic obeisance, the others meanwhile doing the same. Almost the last thing he saw on earth was the skinny folds on Wither's neck shaking like the wattles of a turkey-cock. Almost the last thing he heard was Wither beginning to chant. Then Straik joined in. Then, horribly, he found he was singing himself-

    "Ouroborindra! Ouroborindra! Ouroborindra ba-ba-hce!"

    But not for long. "Another," said the voice, " give me another head." Filostrato knew at once why they were forcing him to a certain place in the wall. He had devised it all himself. In the wall that separated the Head's room from the ante-chamber there was a little shutter. When drawn back it revealed a window in the wall, and a sash to that window which could fall quickly and heavily. But the sash was a knife. The little guillotine had not been meant to be used like this! They were going to murder him uselessly, unscientifically! If he were doing it to one of them, all would have been different; everything would have been prepared weeks beforehand-the temperature of both rooms exactly right, the blade sterilised, the attachments all ready to be made almost before the head was severed. He had even calculated what changes the terror of the victim would probably make in his blood-pressure: the artificial blood-stream would be arranged accordingly, so as to take over its work with the least possible breach of continuity. His last thought was that he had underestimated the terror.

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