Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams

Chapter Twelve

National Transport

The General Secretary of the National Transport Union listened to his subordinate the next morning with considerable incredulity. It was, in fact, only the caution necessary to his official position that prevented him being openly contemptuous, and even that caution was strained.

“Do you expect me to believe that a man can fly through walls and ceilings?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Carnegie said deferentially. “I don’t expect you to believe anything — I don’t know that I do. But I thought you’d like to know what was being’said.”

“But who’s saying it — except some friend of yours?” the General Secretary asked. “I mean — it’s not evidence, is it?”

“My friend mentioned Lord Arglay, sir,” Carnegie ventured. “That’s really what made me decide to tell you.”

“What!” the General Secretary said, “I’d forgotten that bit. D’you mean the Chief Justice?”

“Yes, sir. This girl is his secretary.”

Mr. Theophilus Merridew got up and went across to the fireplace, at which he stood staring.

“It’s obviously got twisted round somehow,” he said at last irritably. “But what on earth could get twisted into such a fantastic tale? I think I’d better see your friend, Carnegie.”

“Yes, sir,” Carnegie said. “You won’t forget that he may not really have meant to tell me so much?”

“I shouldn’t think he did,” the General Secretary answered. “If I hadn’t always found you a very reliable fellow — and if it wasn’t for Lord Arglay — I met him once on a Commission and he seemed a very level-headed sort of man. But this . . . No, I won’t. The whole thing’s too ridiculous . . . But what the devil can it be they’ve got hold of? Tell me all about it again.”

Carnegie did so, stressing his own unbelief and his anxiety merely to bring it to his chief’s notice as part of his official duty, however wild the rumour might be, in anything that had to do with transport.

“Can’t we get hold of a bit of this precious Stone?” Merridew asked at the end. “Who’s got it?”

“Well, sir, the girl’s got a bit — because Lindsay wanted it, and I understood Lord Arglay had, and of course the Government because of this affair at Rich. I don’t know who else. O! Sheldrake.”

“What!” said Merridew. “What, the Atlantic Airways man? Why didn’t you say so before? I know Sheldrake well enough — I’ll go and see him. Whatever bit of truth there is behind this he’ll have got hold of. And if the bit of truth is anything we ought to know about — he won’t want an upset any more than we do.”

“I thought he was on the other side, sir,” Carnegie said smiling.

“Profits mean employment, employment means profits,” said Mr. Merridew. “Didn’t we agree on that at the last Conciliation Conference? Very well then. I’ll see if I can get him at once.”

It happened therefore a little later that morning that Sheldrake was asked if he could see Mr. Merridew, who for one reason or another was a fairly frequent caller and was admitted.

“I’ve come on a funny, business,” he said cheerfully, sitting down. “I want to know anything you can tell me about this Stone of yours.”

“Eh?” said Sheldrake, really surprised, for he could imagine no reason why Merridew should take an interest in a medicinal stone. And there had been nothing else in the papers. “The Stone? Why do you want to know about the Stone?”

The General Secretary, equally in fear of ridicule and negligence, went carefully.

“I want to know what truth there is in this rumour that Lord Arglay’s putting about,” he said, “that it’s going to do something queer to transport.”

“Transport?” Sheldrake asked with a pretence of renewed surprise. “Does Lord Arglay say that?”

“No no,” Mr. Merridew said. “You don’t catch me committing myself to that, not with a lawyer. I don’t mind letting his name drop in, so to speak, between you and me, but actually perhaps I’d better say — what truth there is in this rumour that’s got about? I needn’t tell you that, whatever it is, we don’t want transport reduced any more than you do.”

Sheldrake thought for a minute or two. On the one hand he wasn’t anxious to bring anyone into the secret; on the other, to have the Union at his back would bring extra pressure to bear on the Government, of whose intentions he still remained doubtful. It had been desirable that he should recover his own Stone, but it was absolutely necessary that he should stop any ideas — still more than copies — of it from getting about. That would be, if not ruin, at least very considerable inconvenience. And it would mean very considerable inconvenience to Mr. Merridew’s clients also, of that he was sure. Weighing all this in his mind, and throwing into the balance Mr. Merridew’s own reputed and experienced discretion, he decided to speak. He gave, without names, a summary of how it had reached him, of the concern felt in high quarters, of its powers medicinal and expeditory. And finally he drew from his inner waistcoat pocket the absurd Thing itself, and, very carefully holding it, displayed it to Mr. Merridew, who sat staring at it.

“Well,” he said at last, “that’s not going to damage transport, is it? It looks like nothing on earth. What’s it supposed to do? What . . . what is it?” he ended helplessly.

Sheldrake shook his head. “Tumulty says something about it being an original.”

“Original enough,” Mr. Merridew murmured, still staring.

“And Lord Arglay told my wife it was the centre of the derivations,” Sheldrake added.

“Centre of what derivations?” Merridew asked, more bewildered than ever. “Look here, Sheldrake, can’t you show me what it’ll do? What happens when you . . . use it, if that’s the word?”

Sheldrake being not unwilling to convince him, Mr. Merridew emerged from the next few minutes in a startled and very anxious condition. It seemed clear indeed that transport was going to be in a serious state of collapse if the Stone was multiplied. On the other hand he very naturally and very badly wanted it.

“But what’s this girl doing with it?” he asked. “Carnegie told me that his friend said she was Arglay’s secretary and she had one.”

“I know, I know,” Sheldrake said. “Arglay and she have them, and I wish they hadn’t. But I can’t get Birlesmere to do anything drastic; this Chief Justice is too important to be . . . just dealt with, so he says. I don’t suppose he’ll do anything with it, but I wish to God we had them all under lock and key. It’s not safe while they’re about in the world.”

Merridew got up meditatively. “Well, anyhow,” he said, “we run together in this. You’ll let me know of any developments?”

“I will,” Sheldrake answered. “And keep it quiet. You won’t want your conferences to get nervy. Tell me if you manage to get hold of Arglay’s.”

“I don’t know about Arglay’s,” Merridew said, “but I wonder whether . . . All right. Good-bye for now.”

He returned to his office still in profound meditation and when he had reached it sent for Carnegie.

“This friend of yours,” he began, “the fellow who told you about the Stone — I’ve seen Sheldrake, and I’m bound to say it seems a serious business — you keep your mouth shut, Carnegie, and stand by me, and I’ll look after you . . . understand? Very well. As I was saying, this friend of yours — who is he?”

Carnegie explained Frank Lindsay.

“Well off?”’ asked Mr. Merridew. “No, of course not. And he was a bit up in the air over it, was he? Is he a . . . sensible fellow? The kind that can see where his own interests lie?”

“I think so, sir,” Carnegie said. “He always seemed to me a pretty level-headed chap. Reads a good deal, but I suppose he has to do that.”

“Yes . . . humph . . . well,” said the other. “Get him round here, will you, Carnegie? Ask him to look in here at lunch time; ask him to lunch — no, better not; that would look too eager. Ask him to look in and see me. You needn’t let him know what you’ve told me, just that I was speaking of the Stone and you mentioned you knew someone who knew this Miss Burnett who is the Chief Justice’s secretary. See?”

Carnegie saw at any rate sufficiently well to lure Frank round to the offices of the Union, and there introduced him to Mr. Merridew, who was extremely interested and affable.

“Ah, Mr. Lindsay, how kind of you! Do sit down. Don’t go, Carnegie, don’t go. It’s a shame to trouble you about this, Mr. Lindsay, but if you can help us I needn’t say how grateful I should be. Of course I quite understand that this is all confidential. Now I’m in a state of great anxiety, very great anxiety indeed, and when Carnegie let out that he knew you and that you were in touch with the Lord Chief Justice and so on, I thought a little chat couldn’t at any rate do any harm. It’s all about this Stone of yours.”

“Not of mine, I’m afraid,” Frank said. His first feeling on waking that morning had been that he had been rather hard on Chloe, but as he dressed and became more clearly aware that the examination was one morning nearer this had given way to the feeling that Chloe had been very hard on him. In which opinion he still remained. “I’ve not even seen it properly.”

“It’s Miss Burnett who has it?” Mr. Merridew asked half casually.

“It is,” said Frank. “And of course Lord Arglay.”

“Ah, yes, Lord Arglay,” Merridew assented. “Lord Arglay — have you ever met him?”

“Once,” Frank said.

“Lord Arglay is a delightful man in himself, I believe,” Merridew went on, “but I’m not sure that he isn’t in some ways a little narrow-minded. A lawyer is almost bound to be perhaps. However, that’s neither here nor there. My own trouble is quite simple. I’m responsible, as far as any man is, for all the members of this Union getting shelter and food from their jobs. Now, I’ve not seen this Stone, and I can hardly believe what’s said, but it’s said — it is said — that it means there’s some new method of movement. I suppose it’s a kind of scientific invention.”

“I really don’t know,” Frank said, as Mr. Merridew paused. “I only know what Miss Burnett told me. O and Mrs. Sheldrake seemed very anxious about it.”

“Ah, the ladies, the ladies!” the General Secretary smiled. “A little credulous, perhaps — yes? But I do feel that, if there should be anything in it, I ought to know what. And as between a lady, a lawyer, and, if I may say so, a man of the world like yourself, I naturally preferred to get into touch with you. After all — I don’t know what your political views may be, but after all someone ought to think of these millions of hardworking men whose livelihood is in danger.”

“But I don’t see quite what I can do,” Frank said. “Miss Burnett wouldn’t lend me the Stone.”

“She wouldn’t, you think,” Merridew asked, casually looking down at his papers, “sell it?”

“Eh? sell it?” Frank exclaimed. “No, I don’t — I’m almost sure she wouldn’t. Besides Mrs. Sheldrake said something about seventy thousand pounds.”

“Ah, well, a poor Trades Union could hardly go to that-but then I’d be quite willing only to borrow it,” Merridew said. “If for instance you by any chance had one of them — I’d willingly pay a good sum for the privilege of borrowing it for a little while. Say —” he estimated Frank for a moment and ended —“a few hundreds even. It’s of such dire importance to my people.”

Frank considered, and the more he considered the more certain he became that to offer Chloe, if she were still in her last night’s mood, a few hundreds would be the same as offering a few millions or a few pence. In these silly tempers it would mean nothing to her.

“I can ask her, of course,” he said reluctantly.

“If she should lend it to you for any reason —” Mr. Merridew thoughtfully said, “If, I mean, you had any need of it and — as she naturally would — she passed it on to you, perhaps you’d bear me in mind.”

“I don’t think she’s likely to do that,” Frank said.

“Or even if you could borrow it sometime — I don’t mean exactly without her knowing, though if she didn’t happen to want it . . . I understand Lord Arglay has one, and I suppose if Miss Burnett works there she could always use his — if you happened across it some time . . . I don’t know whether Miss Burnett is one of those young ladies who always leave their umbrellas or their handbags or something behind them —”

“No,” Frank said, “she isn’t.”

“Well, if she did”— Merridew went on —“or, as I say, if you borrowed it for any purpose of your own — well, if you had it in any way, and would show it me, I should be very glad to pay a fee. Better spend a few hundreds first than a few millions on unemployment pay, you know, is the way I look at it. Prevention is better than cure.”

“I see,” Frank answered.

He was not at all clear what he did see, moving in his mind, what kind of action half-presented itself and then withdrew, but to borrow the Stone for his examination, just for the day or two, couldn’t do any harm. And if this fellow was willing to pay . . . Chloe should have it, of course; she’d only about thirty pounds at her back. Or at least they might split it — she was always very good about paying if things were rather tight, and she’d probably rather . . . only then she’d have to know. And if as a matter of fact she hadn’t known, if there were any way of borrowing it, if . . .

“I see,” he said again, and there was a silence. Suddenly he stood up. “Well, I must be going,” he said. “Yes, I see, Mr. Merridew. Well, if anything should happen —”

“Any time, day or night,” the General Secretary said. “Carnegie will give you my address. And of course any expenses — taxis or anything — good-bye.”

He watched Frank out and when Carnegie returned —“I’ wish there was a quicker way,” he said. “I shall go to the Home Office after lunch, but I don’t suppose they’ll let one out of their hands. I wouldn’t if I was them. It’s up to you to keep on top of your friend, Carnegie. If he wants it himself for this examination of his we may just have tipped the balance. Though he mayn’t be able to do it even so. Well, we must see. And now try and make an appointment for me with the Home Office this afternoon.”

The Home Secretary was a charming politician whose methods differed from Lord Birlesmere’s in that while the Foreign Secretary preferred at least to appear to direct the storm, Mr. Garterr Browne allowed it to blow itself out, after which he pointed out to it exactly what damage it had done. He got up to shake hands with Mr. Merridew and directed his attention to another visitor who was standing by the table.

“May I introduce you to Mr. Clerishaw, the Mayor of Rich-by-the-Mere?” he said. “Mr. Merridew, the General Secretary of the National Transport Union. Do sit down, both of you. I fancy this business may be a trifle long. Don’t be alarmed, Mr. Merridew — I know what you want, at least I can guess. My difficulty is . . . but perhaps Mr. Clerishaw had better explain. A man always puts his own case best.”

There were those who asserted that this phrase, which was a favourite with Mr. Garterr Browne, had been responsible for more quarrels in his party and crises in the Cabinet than any other formula for twenty years. After hearing it, a man was always convinced that he did, and was consequently more reluctant to abandon his case than before. The Mayor needed no convincing, but neither was he anxious to waste energy.

“I have already stated my case to you, sir, as a member of the Government,” he said. “I cannot see that anything is to be gained by repeating it.”

“I think, Mr. Mayor,” the Home Secretary said, “that you will find it is more necessary to convince Mr. Merridew than to persuade me.”

“How so?” the Mayor asked.

“Because Mr. Merridew is one of my difficulties, I fancy,” the Minister answered. “Mr. Secretary, tell me how much publicity do you desire for the tale of this absurd Stone?”

“What!” Merridew exclaimed —“publicity? I don’t want any publicity at all — that’s the point. I want to know whether the Government are taking steps to control all of these precious Stones that are in existence . . . I mean, if there’s anything in them. Or to have immediate assurances that there is nothing.”

“Yes, but Mr. Clerishaw wants a great deal of publicity, Mr. Garterr Browne smiled. “O a very great deal. He objects to any kind of secrecy.”

Mr. Merridew settled himself firmly in his chair. “And why?” he asked, very much as a General Secretary should.

The Mayor turned on him. ‘Great God, sir,” he said almost fiercely, “do you want to condemn thousands of men and women to suffering?”

“I don’t,” Merridew said, “and because I don’t I want the Stone withdrawn from . . . from circulation.”

“Don’t you know,” the Mayor cried out, “that there are those well and happy today who have been in pain and grief for years — all by the healing powers of this Stone?”

“O you mean the people at Rich?” Merridew exclaimed. He had entirely forgotten, in his concern with transport, the virtues of the Stone which had caused so much disturbance in Rich during the week-end. But his phrase sounded as if he relegated the people at Rich to sickness or health indifferently, and the Mayor took a step forward.

“I speak for the people at Rich,” he said, “for I am the Mayor of Rich. By what right do you speak and for whom?”

“I speak,” Merridew answered, sincerely if somewhat habitually moved, “for the sons of Martha.” He had found Mr. Kipling’s poem of the greatest use in emotional speeches from the platform; that and some of Mr. Masefield’s verses were his favourite perorations. But the Mayor, not having read much modern verse, was merely astonished.

“For what?” he asked.

“‘For the sailor, the stoker of steamers, the man with the clout,’” murmured the Home Secretary, who had heard Mr. Merridew before. “For the workers — some of them anyhow.”

“And what have the workers to lose because of the Stone?” the Mayor asked. “Are not they also the people?”

“Of course they’re the people,” the General Secretary exclaimed, “they are the people. And are they to lose their livelihood because of a few cures?”

“Perhaps,” the Home Secretary put in, “you haven’t realized, Mr. Mayor, that this very interesting Stone has other qualities, so I am told, besides the curative. In short . . . ”

He gave a brief explanation of those qualities. The Mayor listened frowning.

“But I confess,” Mr. Garterr Browne ended, “I didn’t know that these facts — these apparent facts — would have reached Mr. Merridew so soon. However, as it is —” He got courteously off the storm, and signed to it to go ahead.

“That,” Merridew said, “is my case. If it’s some scientific invention, as I suppose it is, it ought to be State property, and its introduction into the economic life of the country must be only brought about very, very gradually.”

“While the poor die in misery,” the Mayor commented.

“Damn it, sir,” Mr. Merridew exclaimed, “I am speaking for the poor.”

“For the sick and dying?” the Mayor asked. “For the blind and the paralytic and the agonized? Do as you will about economics — but the body is more than raiment.”

“Not without raiment — not for long,” Mr. Garterr Browne said. “But go on with the discussion. What were you about to say, Mr. Secretary?”

“I protest against the way my words are twisted,” Merridew cried. “I’ve no possible objection to the medicinal use of the Stone.”

“Nor I to its economic suppression,” the Mayor answered and they both looked at Mr. Garterr Browne.

“Beautiful,” the Minister breathed. “When democracy lies down with democracy . . . And how, gentlemen, do you propose to use the Stone all over the country while at the same time keeping it under close guard?”

“The doctors —” Merridew began.

“Hardly,” the Minister said. “For it must be in the hands and at the will of those who are to be healed. And I don’t myself see what is to prevent the . . . the healed from going off by its means, once he is cured. We shan’t be able to keep it quiet. And then there will be Stones everywhere. I’m not objecting. I’m only saying that we must use it either fully or not at all.”

“Then in the name of God, use it!” the Mayor cried out.

“And ruin hundreds and thousands of homes!” Merridew followed him. “Suppress it, I say.”

Mr. Garterr Browne waved both hands at the storm. “You See?” he asked it courteously, and after a few moments’ silence added, “If the Government heal the sick they starve the healthy. If, on the other hand, they protect the healthy they doom the sick.”

.Both his visitors felt a sudden touch of horror. The dilemma came at them so suddenly, and on so vast a scale, that they mentally recoiled from it. Neither of them was thinking at the moment of any others than those on whose behalf he imagined himself speaking. But to each of them the placid voice of the Home Secretary called up a vision of another hemisphere of danger and distress; and over that danger and that distress floated, ironically effective, the Stone. Of the two the Mayor suffered the more, for he had the keener sight, and at the same time the remembrance of his own son struck at his heart. He saw the silent railways and the idle workers at the same time that he heard the moans of the dying man and knew them for the moans of one among thousands. He turned sharply on the Minister.

“Is there no way of administering relief,” he asked, “by the most careful vigilance?”

“There is no way to protect the Stone if we’are to use the Stone,” Mr. Garterr Browne said. “And now, gentlemen?”

“I cannot believe it,” the Mayor cried out. “Is the mind of man incapable of dealing with this problem? Or is the Stone sent to mock us?”

“Well . . . mock?” the Minister asked, “mock? . . . But I think probably its value has been much exaggerated. We have, of course —”

“But I have seen these things happen,” the Mayor said.

“No doubt, no doubt. As I was saying,” the Minister went on, “we have, of course, our own scientists at work on it. Analysing, you know.”

“Who are your scientists?” the Mayor asked.

“Sir Giles Tumulty primarily,” the other answered. He had never heard of Sir Giles till the previous evening, but his manner implied that the name ought to settle the Mayor, “And no doubt he — they — will find some means to isolate the curative while — shall we say inhibiting? — the non-curative elements. But you must give us time.”

“And am I to go back to Rich and tell the people to die?” the Mayor asked.

“You talk as if your townsfolk were all the people,” Merridew muttered. “Aren’t there any others to watch for the people than you? What of the Unions? Are my members to starve that your townsfolk may be more cheerful?”

“It seems,” the Mayor said heavily, “that this Stone is a very subtle thing.”

Mr. Garterr Browne felt that his own mind was at least as good as the Stone if it came to subtlety. It had been a difficult situation, and now everything was coming right. He looked almost gratefully at Mr. Merridew, but received no answering glance. The General Secretary was beginning to feel anxious about the future.

“At least,” the Mayor said suddenly, “you will have the whole matter laid before Parliament, so that we may know what resolution is come to, and for what reason.”

“I very certainly will not,” Mr. Garterr Browne said, startled at this new threat of tempest. “Why, Parliament isn’t even sitting. I shall let the Cabinet know. Can’t you trust us to do our best?”

Neither of his visitors seemed anxious to do so. Both of them were thinking of the crowds, of voices crying out questions, of the demand of the common people for security and food and content. In the faint noise of the traffic of London that came to them in the room there seemed to be something which must either be laid hold of or itself lay hold. Merridew saw before him the massed ranks of his Conference. There was here a thing which allowed, it seemed, of no arrangement; here was no question of percentages and scales and wage-modifications over long periods — things that could be explained and defended. If it got out, if the Stone were used publicly, the whole of his Unions would be raging round him, and all the allied trades. Yet if the Stone were refused, he seemed to see in the upright and dangerous figure of the Mayor a threat of other action, of the outbreak of the sick and the friends of the sick. He foresaw division and angry strife, and suddenly looking at the Home Secretary he cried out in answer to the plaintive appeal —“But this is civil war!”

The Mayor looked over at him. “I do not think you are wrong, Mr. Secretary,” he said. “We are coming perhaps to evil days.”

“But really, gentlemen,” the Minister began, and then changing his intention addressed himself to the Mayor. “Do you not see,” he said, “that more will suffer if the Stone is used than if it is kept secret? I am sure we all sympathize with those who are in need’of one sort or another, but you cannot build up a house by pulling it down, nor do good to some by doing harm to many. Besides, so little has really been discovered about this . . . discovery that it’s too soon to take a gloomy view. You, I am sure, Mr. Mayor, will explain this to the people of Rich.”

“And if the people of Rich lynch me in the street I shall think it natural,” the Mayor answered.

There was a knock at the door and a secretary entered. “Lord Birlesmere is very anxious to see you, sir,” he said. “He telephoned from the Foreign Office Just now to know if he could come across.”

“Of course, of course,” Mr. Garterr Browne answered, and then, as the secretary went out, turned to his visitors. “Well,” he said, “I must break off the discussion. But please don’t let there be any misunderstanding. The Government will take steps to find out what the truth really is. As I said before, there is always likely to be exaggeration. And then I will let you know its decision. Pray, gentlemen, exercise all your restraining influence, and do not let there be any talk of civil war. This is a civilized community. Your interests — the interests of those you represent — townsfolk or unionists — will be safe in our hands. I shall be writing to you both in a few days. No, Mr. Mayor, I can’t discuss it further at present. Important things are bound to take time.”

As the two were ushered out Mr. Garterr Browne shook his head thoughtfully at the still ominous storm. “What is quite certain,” he said, “is that no one must be allowed to believe in this Stone any more. It simply must not be allowed.”

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