Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams

Chapter Ten

The Appeal of the Mayor of Rich

Doncaster, having been suddenly thrown over by Mr. Sheldrake and Lord Birlesmere, and himself in London with nobody wanting him, determined to return to his holiday village. As he walked to the station he found himself considerably irritated by the treatment he had received. He had been asked by the police to be good enough to attend this conference, and now he was flung into the street with the other less important people. No one had explained anything to him. He didn’t even know who half the people he had seen were. He had heard Lord Arglay’s name and recognized it; he had a vague recollection of having once read an extremely outspoken book by Sir Giles on the religious aspect of the marriage customs of a tribe of cannibals in Polynesia. But who Palliser was or the girl who had landed Palliser on the floor he had no idea, nor why she had done it. Why had she rushed round and flown at Sir Giles’s throat? “I almost wish,” he thought, “she’d flown at mine. Or Sheldrake’s. I should have liked to help her wring Sheldrake’s neck. I wonder if she hurt herself much. Anyhow it won’t matter if she’s got one of the Stones. Why the devil didn’t I take one? Why does no one tell me what it’s all about? Why did Sir Giles cut the Stone to bits? And why did that girl want to stop him?” As far as Rich he entertained himself with such questions.

Rich itself, when he arrived there, seemed to be similarly, but rather more angrily, engaged. There were groups in the streets and at the doors; there were dialogues and conversations proceeding everywhere. There were policemen — a number of policemen — moving as unnoticeably as possible through the slightly uncivil population. In fact it was, Doncaster thought, as much like the morning after the night before on a generous scale as need be. It occurred to him that he would go round and see Mrs. Ferguson’s sister on his way; it would be interesting to know whether she remained in her recovered health — if he could reach her, of course, because as he wandered towards her street the groups seemed, in spite of the continually pacing police, to be larger and more numerous. The street itself however was passable, though not much more, and he had just turned into it, when he was startled into a pause by a high shrill voice some distance off which called over the street, “Where’s the Stone? Take me to the Stone.”

Oliver looked at the people near him. One man shook his head placidly and said, “Ah there he is again.” But the rest were listening, he thought, almost sullenly, and one or two muttered something, and another gave a short laugh. Conversations ceased; a policeman, wandering by, caught Oliver’s eye, and seemed to meet it dubiously as if he were not quite certain what to do.

“Where’s the Stone?” the voice shrilled again. “I want to see. Won’t some kind friend take a poor old blind man to the Stone?”

“What is it?” Oliver said to his nearest neighbour, the man who had laughed. “That’s old Sam Mutton,” the man said in a surly scorn. “Stone-blind and half-dotty. He’s heard of this Stone and he’s made his grand-daughter take him about the town all day to look for it.” He lifted his own voice suddenly and called back, “No use, Sam, the police have got it. It’s not for you and me to get well with it.”

The cry went over the silent street like a threat. But in answer the old man’s voice came back. “I can’t see. I want to see. Take me to the Stone.” Each sentence ended in what was nearly a prolonged shriek, and as Oliver took a pace or two forward he saw the speaker in front of him. It was a very old man, bald and wizened, approaching slowly, leaning on the one side on a stick, on the other on the arm of a girl of about twenty, who, as they moved, seemed to be trying to persuade him to return. She was whispering hurriedly to him; her other hand lay on his arm. Even at a little distance Oliver noticed how pale she was and how the hand trembled. But the old man shook it off and began again calling out in that dreadful agonized voice, “I want to se-ee; take me to the Sto-one.”

On the moment the girl gave way. She collapsed on the ground, her arm slipping from the old man’s grasp so that he nearly fell, and broke into a violent fit of hysterics. Two or three women ran to her, but above her rending sobs and laughter her grandfather’s voice went up in a more intense refrain, “Where’s the Stone? I can’t see. Nancy, I can’t see, take me to the Stone.” The policeman had come back and was saying something to Oliver’s neighbour who listened sullenly. “— get him home,” Oliver heard, and heard the answer, “You get him home — if you can.” The policeman — he looked young and unhappy enough — went up to the old man, saying something in a voice that tried to be comfortable and cheering. But old Sam, if that were his name, turned and clutched at him, and broke out in a shrill senile wail of passion that appalled Oliver, “I’m dying, I’m dying. I want to see before I die. I’m dying. I want to see. O kind, kind friends, will no one bring me to the Stone?”

“The police have got the Stone,” Oliver’s neighbour called. “Who cares if you want to see? The police have got the Stone.” “God blast the police,” said someone the other side of Oliver, and a young working man, of about his own age, thrust himself violently forward opposite the constable. “You, damn you, you’ve killed my wife. My wife’s dead, she died this morning, and the baby’s dead — and they’d have lived if I’d got the Stone.” He made sudden gestures and the policeman, letting go of the old man, stepped back. Oliver saw two or three more helmets moving forward in support, and a voice behind him said sharply, “Now then, now then, what’s all this?”

He looked round. A group of men were pushing past him. One was a short fierce-looking man, with an aggressive moustache; beside him was an older and larger man, with a grave set face. Behind these two were a police-inspector and two or three constables.

“What’s all this?” said the little man angrily. “Constable, Why aren’t you keeping the street clear? Don’t you know your orders? Who’s this man? Why are you letting him make all this noise? What’s he got to do with it? Don’t you know we can hear him all over the town? Gross incapacity. You’ll hear more of this.”

The young constable opened his mouth to speak and shut it again. The tall man laid his hand on his companion’s arm. “One man can’t do everything, Chief Constable,” he said in a low voice. “And Sam’s a difficult person to deal with. I think we’d better leave it to the inspector here to deal with things quietly.”

“Quietly?” the Chief Constable snapped. “Quietly! Look here, Mr. Mayor, you’ve been at me all day to do things quietly, and I’ve given in here and given in there, and this is the end of it.” He looked over his shoulder. “Clear the street at once, inspector,” he said. “And tell that old dodderer that if he makes another sound I’ll have him in prison for brawling.”

The Mayor said firmly, “You can’t arrest him; he’s a well-known character here, and everyone’s sorry for him and his grand-daughter. Besides, it’s natural enough that he should be crying out like this.”

“I don’t care whether it’s natural or not,” the Chief Constable answered. “‘He’s not going to do it here. Now, inspector, I’m waiting.”

The inspector signed to his men, who began to make separate and gentle movements forward. But after a step or two the advance flickered and ceased. The general murmur, “Now then, now then, you can’t hang about here,” died in and into the silence with which it was received. The crowd remained sullenly fixed.

“Inspector!” the Chief Constable said impatiently.

The inspector looked at Oliver who was close to him, recognized his kind, and said in a low almost plaintive voice, “Now, sir, if you’d start some of them would get away.”

“And why the devil,” Oliver asked very loudly, “should we get away?”

There was a stiffening in the crowd near him, a quick murmur, almost the beginning of a cheer. The Mayor and the Chief Constable both looked at Oliver.

“Say that again, my man,” the latter said, “and I’ll have you in prison for resisting the police.”

“The Lord Chief Justice,” Oliver said, more loudly still, “is entirely opposed to the action of the Government.” He had hardly meant to say that, but as soon as it was said he thought hastily that in the morning’s conference the Chief Justice hadn’t seemed to be exactly one with the Government. But he realized in a minute that his sentence, meaning one thing, had meant to his hearers quite another. A more definite noise broke out around him. “This,” he thought, “is almost a roar.”

The Chief Constable began to say something, but the Mayor checked him with a lifted hand. “Do I understand you, sir,” he asked, “to say that the Chief Justice considers the action of the Government illegal? Do you speak from your own certain knowledge?”

Oliver thought of saying, “Well, I don’t know about illegal,” but the phrase was so deplorably weak that he abandoned it. Besides, in that large room at the Foreign Office — Lord Birlesmere, Sir Giles, Chloe’s bleeding fingers — “The Chief Justice’s secretary,” he said clearly, “was seriously injured this morning in — protesting against — the action of — certain associates of the Government, and the Chief Justice takes the most serious view of the situation.”

This might be a little compressed, he felt; Lord Arglay’s actual words had seemed a trifle less official. And seriously injured? Still . . .

The inspector stood still, looking worried, and glanced gloomily at the Chief Constable, who was making half-audible noises. The Mayor considered Doncaster evenly. Somebody behind shouted, “The Government’s broken the law,” and Oliver felt a little cold as he heard this final reduction of his own sentences to a supposed fact. In the following silence, “I want the Stone,” the old man wailed again.

“We all want the Stone,” another voice called, and another, “Who cares what they say? We want the Stone.” Cheers and shouts answered. A man stumbled heavily against the inspector who was thrown back upon the Chief Constable.

The incident might have become a mélée if the Mayor had not intervened. He held up both arms, crying in a great voice, “Silence, silence! Silence for the Mayor,” and went to a horse-trough near by, motioning to Oliver to follow him; by whose assistance he mounted on the edge of the trough. Holding to an electric light standard he began to address the crowd.

“Good people,” he said in a stentorian voice, “you all know me. I will ask you to return to your homes and leave me to discover the truth about this matter. I am the Mayor of Rich, and if the people of Rich have been injured it is my business to remedy it and help them. If, as appears, the Stone of which we have heard is able to heal illness, and if the Government are using it, as swiftly as may be, for that purpose, it is the duty of all good citizens to accept what delay the common good of all demands. But it is equally their right to be assured that the Government is doing its utmost in the matter, day and night, so that not a single moment may be lost in freeing as many as May be from pain and suffering. I shall make it my concern to discover this at once. I know the hindrances which must, and I fear those which may, follow on what has happened. I will myself go to London.” He paused a moment, then he went on. “Some of you may know that my son is dying of cancer. If it is a matter of ensuring swiftness and order he and I will be the last in all the country to claim assistance. But I tell you this that you may be very sure that he shall not suffer an hour longer than need be because of the doubts or fears or stupidities of the servants of the people. Return to your homes and tomorrow at this time you shall know all that I know.” He paused again and ended with a loud cry, “God save the King.”

“God save the King!” yelled Oliver in a thrill of delight, and assisted the Mayor to descend. Who turned on him at once and went on talking before the Chief Constable could interrupt.

“I shall want you,” he said. “I want all the information you can give me, and I may need your personal help. Are you free? But it doesn’t matter whether you are or not. I demand your presence in the name of the King and by the authority of my office. We will go to the Town Hall first. Barker,” he went on, to a man behind him, “see that the car is kept all ready in front of the Town Hall. Inspector, I rely on you to see that the promise I have made is published everywhere, and I warn you that the bench will examine very carefully any case of reported brawling brought before them in this connexion. Chief Constable, I am obliged for your assistance, but I think the situation is well in hand, and the chief magistrate can dispense with any outside help. Come along, young man — what is your name.

What account exactly Oliver gave the Mayor he was never very clear. But, whatever it was, it was bound to confirm in the other’s mind the importance of the Stone and the need for urgent and immediate action on the Government. Once in the Town Hall, Oliver found himself in a maze of action. There was a small, stout, and facetious alderman who was apparently being left in charge as deputy mayor; there was an auburn and agitated Town Clerk; there were the girl typists who are spread all over England; there were commissionaires and chauffeurs and telephones and councillors and a male clerk — Oliver had had no idea so many people could accumulate in the seat of authority of a small country town. He was rather curious to learn what the Mayor’s own name was, and at last by dint of studying the notices on the wall discovered that it was Clerishaw — Eustace Clerishaw. He had hardly fixed on this when its’owner was on him again.

“I shall want you to come with me,” the Mayor said. “I am going to London at once.”

“But what good shall I be?” Oliver asked, as he was hurried to the door, but without any real regret at finding himself thus caught up again in the operations of the Stone.

“I may,” the Mayor went on, “want to see Lord Arglay, but I shall go to the Home Office first.”

“If you get as much satisfaction as we did at the Foreign Office,” Oliver answered, “you’ll be there for months. What do you think they’ll do?”

The Mayor, taking no notice, pushed him out of the Town Hall and followed him. There was a large crowd at the entrance, and a cheer went up when they appeared. As they hurried down to the car which stood in readiness a policeman sprang to open it and Oliver recognized the young constable he had seen before. They scrambled in; the policeman banged the door, and put his head in.

“Good luck, sir,” he said. “Good luck and give them hell.”

“Heavens above,” thought Oliver as he sat down, “the Pretorian Guard’s beginning to mutiny.”

For the rest of the journey he was undergoing a close interrogation, and by the time they reached London the Mayor seemed more or less satisfied. He sat back and stretched his legs.

“The Deputy Mayor, with the help of my clerk and so on,” he said, “is getting into touch with all the Mayors in the district. During Sunday crowds from at least five other centres came out to Rich, and returned, I fear, with very little satisfaction. I have been asked questions by all the Mayors, but until I found you I had very little information to go on.”

“I shouldn’t think you’d got much now,” Oliver said. The Mayor looked at his notes. “As I understand,” he went on, slowly, “the matter is at present in the hands of the Foreign Office, and some kind of strain exists between that Department and the Lord Chief Justice. I heard from Mr. Sheldrake — whom I saw for a few minutes yesterday — that Lord Arglay was in some way connected with the whole thing — indeed, Mrs. Sheldrake seemed to think he was responsible for the trouble. But I have always been very much impressed by such of Lord Arglay’s judgements as I have been able to read and follow, and I was greatly struck by an article of his I once read on the Nature of Law. A little abstract, perhaps, but very interesting; he defined law provisionally as ‘the formal expression of increasing communal self-knowledge’ and had an excursus comparing the variations in law with the variations in poetic diction from age to age, the aim being to discover the best plastic medium for expression in action. Very interesting.”

“He didn’t look a bit like that this morning,” Oliver said. “He just surveyed everything, though he moved quickly enough when that foul Tumulty creature was slashing round with a knife — at least, he told me to move.”

“I think the best plan,” the Mayor said unheeding, “would be for you to go straight to him. He may not, in his position, be able to do anything, but he said in that article that law should be an exposition of, not an imposition on, the people — so he may be more or less in sympathy. Yes, you go there — I had the address looked up — while I go to the Home Secretary’s; it’s no use trying Whitehall — I’d better go to his private house first. If I can get no satisfaction . . .

“Do you expect to?” Oliver asked.

The Mayor was silent for a few minutes, then he said quite quietly, “No, I don’t. I expect there’ll be trouble before we get our way. That’s why I want to know about the Chief Justice. If he’s on our side it will help us amazingly.”

Oliver tried to imagine the large placid form who had sat comfortably opposite him at the conference leading the crowd from Rich-by-the-Mere to attack London. But though that picture faded too quickly, he realized as he thought that the assistance of the Chief Justice would give the riot an emblem of authority which would transform it into a rebellion. Only he couldn’t see Lord Arglay doing it, and he was no nearer to seeing it when the Mayor turned him out of the car at Lancaster Gate and went on, leaving him staring at the front door which concealed the Justice of England. The justice of England, he reflected, might be out; nothing in the present state of things was more probable. A little more cheerfully he rang the bell, and his hopes were defeated. The maid would see if Lord Arglay was at home. Mr. Doncaster? Would he take a seat?

“Doncaster?” Lord Arglay said, looking at Chloe. “Doncaster? Ought I to . . . I do, vaguely.”

“I think he was there this morning,” Chloe said. “Just a minute.” She looked among her papers. “Yes, he was, I made a list of their names in case they should be useful.”

“I sometimes think,” Arglay said, glancing down the slip of paper she gave him, “that the law of cause and effect isn’t really understood. Since whatever you do is bound to be justified, justification is produced. This Mr. Doncaster comes merely as a result of your having written down his name. Shall we ask him what he thinks — poor deluded wretch! — made him call here?”

They had, at the moment of Oliver’s arrival, been arguing whether it was safe for Chloe to go home alone. She had wished to go as usual; the Chief Justice had offered his car, his servants (“though none of them,” he put in, “would be useful”) and himself to take her. Alternatively, was there no friend she could telephone to, who could call at the house and look after her. “If you won’t stop here, that is.”

But this, considering that the servants knew nothing of the crisis, and considering also matters of dress and convenience, Chloe declined to do. She was more uncertain about summoning Mr. Lindsay. Frank had been rather badly treated — and he was almost certain to be in, working — and he would love to be called on. Ought she to give him the pleasure? “But we should have to tell him,” she said aloud, half-unconsciously.

“The papers,” Lord Arglay said, “have already done a good deal of that. And a friend of yours —” with a gesture he opened the secret to her friend’s entrance.

Duty could sometimes be pleasure, Chloe thought looking at him, and certainly pleasure sometimes looked remarkably like duty. Still . . . after all, Frank had had a difficult Saturday. And nothing at all of a Sunday, since she had refused to stir out for fear she might be wanted. After a brief explanation therefore she got through to Frank, offered a tepid request, and came back feeling unexpectedly gloomy. It was then that Oliver had arrived.

“Yes, O yes,” Chloe said, “I should ask him. I’ll go and wait for Mr. Lindsay in the hall.” That, she felt, described her existence — she would always be waiting for someone in the hall. While the great people talked in studies and drawing-rooms. She rather hoped Frank wouldn’t come, then she could get off by herself before the Chief Justice had finished with this Mr. Doncaster. What was the shortest time she could decently wait?

“Show Mr. Doncaster in,” Lord Arglay said to the maid. “And when a Mr. Lindsay whom I’m expecting comes, show him in. If,” he went on to Chloe, “this fellow has anything really secret I’ll take him away, while you tell your friend as much as you choose of the story. If you can remember it, which is more than I shall be able to do soon. I do wish I knew what, if anything, had happened at Birmingham. If that fellow Pondon has come back what a difficulty he’ll have explaining to the police. Mr Doncaster? Why yes, I remember you this morning now — Miss Burnett, if you remember Miss Burnett, remembered you before. Do sit down.”

“Thank you very much, Lord Arglay,” Oliver said, obeying.

“An extraordinary business, isn’t it?” the Chief Justice went on. “How goes your end? — whichever is your end. For I’m ashamed to say I am not quite clear what party you are of, so to speak. Mr. Sheldrake’s, wasn’t it?”

Oliver crossed his legs. “I represent,” he said gravely, “the people. I am the autos of their autocratic mouth. I am the sovereign will. I am . . . The solemn tone of his mock proclamation faded, and he ended, lamely and seriously, “the people.”

Lord Arglay observed the change of tone and looked at him carefully. “And how do the people come in?” he asked.

Oliver, as best he could, explained. As he began he felt a fool, but his eyes lit on the strip of black silk across Chloe’s hand — she had declined to attempt to heal it by the Stone and he derived therefrom a certain strength. After all, this girl had knocked the Professor over and attacked Sir Giles; she had thrust herself across the will of that unpleasant little beast. And Sir Giles had been left with Sheldrake at the Foreign Office when the rest of them were turned out. And the people were clamouring for life and health from that Mystery which the police, on behalf of the American, had pouched.

“I don’t quite see,” Lord Arglay said when he had done, “on what grounds you asserted so strongly that I disapproved Of the Government.”

“Well, sir,” Oliver said, “I thought you approved of Miss Burnett.”

“I always approve of Miss Burnett,” Arglay answered. “It would be temperamentally impossible to me to have a secretary of whom I disapproved. But approving of Miss Burnett has not, from the beginning, been necessarily equivalent to disapproving of the Government.”

“But in this case, sir . . .?” Oliver suggested.

The Chief Justice shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “In the first place I don’t know what they are doing; in the second, I neither approve nor disapprove of governments, but of men and that only according to the order and decision of the laws. I am a chair, Mr. Doncaster, not a horse — not even Rosinante.”

“But if Don Quixote came before the chair?” Oliver asked.

“I should think he is very likely to, if he goes on as he is at present,” Arglay said drily. “But even then — Don Quixote or Don Juan or the Cid Ruy Diaz the Campeador — it is all one. I have not eyes to see nor mouth to speak but as the laws shall direct me.”

“But if it is a case beyond any law?” Oliver said.

“There is no case beyond law,” the Chief Justice answered. “We may mistake in the ruling, we may be deceived by outward things and cunning talk, but there is no dispute between men which cannot be resolved in equity. And in its nature equity is from those between whom it exists: it is passion acting in lucidity.”

“Mr. Lindsay,” the maid said, opening the door. Chloe stood up stiffly and went forward to meet him, and as she did so it seemed to Oliver as if Arglay’s last phrase took on a sudden human meaning. A vivid presence passed him, and he found himself gravely reconstructing the meaning of those words. On a sudden impulse he turned to Lord Arglay. “Is that what you would call Miss Burnett’s action this morning?” he asked.

For a moment the Chief Justice frowned; it appeared to him unnecessary that this Mr. Doncaster should remark on anything Chloe had chosen to do. But the neatness of the phrase placated him; he looked at Oliver with cautious but appreciative eyes. “I will admit, at least,” he said, “that, entirely as a private man, I regard Giles Tumulty as something very nearly without the law.” He stepped forward to meet Frank.

The half-hour which followed was not one on which Chloe looked back, for some time, without growing hot. It was largely she felt, Mr. Doncaster’s fault for arriving so late; it was largely Frank’s for arriving so soon. He had been dragged from his surveyor’s studies to take her home, and she didn’t want to go — not until she knew whether this Mayor was coming. But if she didn’t go at once she must explain, and how could she explain in front of Mr. Doncaster? And why did Frank look so dull? And why, in an effort to be conversational, must he ask her at once if she had hurt her hand? And why was the Chief Justice displaying a remote intention of leaving her to talk to Frank while he went back to Mr. Doncaster? She managed to introduce them, in order (by the exercise of a certain dexterity which she was uneasily conscious Lord Arglay patiently humoured), to move the conversation — it was no more lightly done — on to the common subject of Mr. Sheldrake. But it continually showed signs of breaking into two halves, and at the end of about a quarter of an hour she began wretchedly to make the first preparations for departure. She put one or two papers together, she opened her handbag, and saw within it the white silk handkerchief in which her Type of the Stone had been wrapped. Under cover of a monologue of Lord Arglay’s she pushed aside the soft opaqueness and gazed at the Mystery. Nothing, she thought, had ever looked more feebly useless, more dull and dead, than that bit of white stone. The flakings were not gold, they were yellow; they were obviously merely accidental and it was only a perverse fancy that could see in the black smudges the tracing of the Divine Name. She put her hand down sharply to cover it again, and found that her fingers were unwilling to move. Dared she so, in action, deny the Stone? Thought was multitudinous but action single. A pushing aside or a ritual veiling? — one it must be. Nobody could see or know what she did, yet she felt as if an expectancy lay around, as if something waited, docile but immortal, the consequences of her choice. “Cowardly fool!” Chloe said to herself and, so protesting against her own action, drew Lord Arglay’s handkerchief ceremonially over the Stone.

In spite of her delay, she had reluctantly gone, attended by Mr. Lindsay, before the Mayor of Rich arrived at Lancaster Gate. He was shown in at once and Oliver, hastily presenting him to the Chief Justice, said urgently: “Well, what happened?”

The Mayor answered slowly: “I have had to remind the Home Secretary that the office of Mayor is filled, not by the decision of the Government, but by the choice of the people.”

“Have you indeed?” Oliver said.

“I had some difficulty in getting to see him,” the Mayor went on, “and when I did he was bent on assuring me that the matter was being dealt with. I pressed him to tell me more. I pointed out that I was responsible for order in the town, and that the effect of maintaining secrecy would be highly damaging. We had a long discussion and in the end I was compelled to point out to him that, if no satisfactory statement were made, I should be driven to place the resources of the mayoralty at the disposal of any constitutional agitation that might arise. I was very careful to say ‘constitutional.’ It was then that he threatened me with removal and I reminded him that the Mayors came by vote of the Town Council who are chosen by the people.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30