Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams

Chapter Three

The Tale of the End of Desire

When Miss Burnett arrived at the Chief Justice’s house the next morning she found him reading his correspondence in a perfectly normal way. He looked up to welcome her and considered her carefully. “No worse?” he said. “Good night? Well, you missed something even more eerie.”

“O Lord Arglay! Nothing happened?”

“Something happened all right,” Arglay answered, and his face grew grave. “Up to last night,” he went on, “I thought Giles was monkeying about with something, and playing tricks on Reginald for some infernal reason of his own. But I don’t know now; I really don’t. He didn’t seem to expect what did happen.”

“But, Lord Arglay! What did?”

The Chief Justice told her. Chloe sat gazing at him. “It multiplies itself?” she breathed. “But it must be something magical, then. Something unnatural.”

Arglay shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that,” he answered. “Atoms do it, or electrons, or something. But I admit to having a nasty jar when I saw the three things all exactly alike. Somehow the sight of Reginald producing stones of Suleiman ben Daood at the rate of two a minute with a chisel — it didn’t seem decent.”

“That,” Chloe said with conviction, “is what I felt; that’s why I ran away. Lord Arglay, could — she hesitated, “could those letters be real?”

“If they are, if the Stone is,” the Chief Justice said, “it looks as if it were real in another manner — more or less real than we are. No, that’s absurd, of course. There can’t be degrees in Reality. But we know that we can pass through space by its means — we both know that — and I have seen what was one become two, and then three, and lose nothing in the process. And now this morning . . . ” He gave her a letter, and she read —

“Foreign Office,
“May 10.

“My Dear Chief Justice, “I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes today, and if so whether you would mind ringing up and making an appointment. Nothing to do with you directly, but the fact is we have been approached — very tentatively — on a little matter relating to your brother-in-law Sir Giles Tumulty. And as, on the few occasions when I’ve met him, he always seemed to me rather a difficult man to deal with, I thought my way might be smoother if I could have a chat with you first. Pray forgive me for troubling you.

“Yours very truly,

“J. BRUCE CUMBERLAND.”

Miss Burnett looked up. “You think it’s the same thing?”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Lord Arglay answered. “Of course it may not be. Giles always seems to be conducting several lines of research at once, some perfectly harmless and one or two perfectly loathsome. But the F.O. has had trouble with him once or twice before — obscure troubles no one seemed to know the rights of, except Giles who (it is said) was the proximate cause of one Secretary’s resignation. I don’t wonder Bruce Cumberland hesitates to tackle him.”

“Who is Mr. Cumberland?” Chloe asked.

“One of the smaller great guns there,” Arglay told her. “A Permanent Official in many impermanent offices. But I’ve rung up already and made an appointment for twelve. I want —”

There was a tap at the door and a maid came in. “Sir Giles Tumulty would like to see you, my lord,” she said.

“Sir Giles —? O bring him in, bring him in,” Arglay said and met the visitor at the door. “Hallo, Tumulty, what brings you here so early?” he asked.

Sir Giles came briskly in, threw Chloe a glance, and sat down. “Three things,” he said. “My house was burgled last night, I’m going to Birmingham today, and I want to warn you, or rather other people through you.”

“Burgled?” Arglay said. “Casually or deliberately? And by whom, or don’t you know?”

“Of course I know,” Sir Giles said. “It’s the Embassy people; I shouldn’t be a bit surprised to find Ali Khan did it himself. I’m only surprised they didn’t try to tackle me. They did it pretty well on the whole, felt under my pillow while I was trying not to snigger, and went all over the study, got what safe there is open, and made very little noise. I dare say I shouldn’t have heard them if I hadn’t been awake.”

“Did they get what they wanted?” Arglay asked.

“Get it?” Sir Giles almost shrieked. “Do you suppose, Arglay, that any set of half-caste earthworms would find anything I wanted to hide? No, they didn’t. Suleiman and I are going off to see Palliser at Birmingham today. But I thought I’d leave one of those little fellows with you and one with Reginald. I’ve dropped his in on him and here’s yours.” He pulled one of the Stones from his pocket and threw it on to the table. “And now for the warning. You’re mixed up with a Whitehall crowd of simians, Arglay, and for all I know, the Persians may be trying to pull the strings they dance to. If you hear anything about it, tell them to be careful. For if they try to get the Crown out of me they’ll get more than they want. Tell them if they give me any trouble I’ll make enough Stones to build a wall round London. I’ll sell them at two penny to the children in the streets. I’ll set up a Woolworth’s to show nothing but Stones. The whole population of this blasted sink you call London shall be playing hop-scotch with them. I’ll give them relics enough, and you tell them so. I’ve written to Ali Khan warning him and referring him to you for confirmation.” He started to go, and stopped. “O and if they try and get me knocked on the head that won’t help. For I’ll leave it in proper keeping and I’ll have a mausoleum of relics built over me. So they know.”

With which Sir Giles flung out of the room, but he was back again before Lord Arglay could say more than “Cheery creature!”

“My own advice to both of you,” he said, “is to say nothing at all whatever leprous hooligan from the Foreign Office or the Embassy you may be pestered with. You play your office, Arglay, and Miss Burnett can play her sex. Justice and innocence, that’s your line, though I don’t suppose either of you’s either.”

He was gone again, this time for good, and they heard the front door close.

“Giles always reminds me of the old riddle,” Lord Arglay said in a moment. “Would you rather be more abominable than you sound or sound more abominable than you are? The answer is I would rather be neither but I am both. And now what do we do?” He looked at his watch. “I go to the Foreign Office,” he said, and considered. “I think, Miss Burnett, if anyone comes from the Persian Embassy you had better see them. Don’t know anything; just be obliging. I’ve asked you to take any message that comes, to interview any callers that sort of thing. Lord Arglay was particularly anxious — you know. I’m not sure that I oughtn’t to cut adrift altogether, but there’s Bruce Cumberland, and, as a matter of fact, I’m horribly curious. Well, I’ll go. I’ll tell them to show anyone from the Embassy in to you. Good-bye, and good luck. I shall be back to lunch.”

“They may want you to lunch at the Foreign Office,” Chloe suggested.

“Then I shan’t,” Lord Arglay said firmly. “We must talk the whole thing over. O and this?” He picked up the Stone. “I think this shall go in my private safe upstairs. Good-bye. You might sort out the notes for the next chapter of Organic Law.”

Chloe did her best, but even the thesis of law as a growing and developing habit of the human mind, with its corollary of the distinction between organic consciousness expressed in law and inorganic rules imposed from without, failed to hold her. It might be true that the whole body of criminal law was by its nature, inorganic, which was the point the Chief Justice had reached, though whether in agreement or opposition she had no idea, but she could not keep her mind away from what seemed an organism of unexpected power. “It must be alive,” she found herself saying, and went on to ask herself, “But then does it know? Does it know what it does and what we do to it? Who ever heard of a living stone?” She went on, nevertheless, thinking along that road. “Does it know what Mr. Montague is doing with it? What else can it do? and can it do anything to us?”

The maid came in. “A gentleman from the Embassy is downstairs, Miss Burnett,” she said. “Lord Arglay told me to show him up. Will that be all right?”

“Certainly,” Chloe said nervously, “yes, please bring him in.” In a minute the maid announced “Mr. Ibrahim”, and vanished. A little old gentleman, in Western dress but for his green turban, walked placidly into the room.

“Do sit down,” Chloe said, mastering her agitation. “Probably the maid told you that Lord Arglay was so sorry he had had to go out, but he hoped you would be good enough to leave any message with me. If possible.”

Hajji Ibrahim bowed and sat down. “You know, I think, what I have come about?” he said.

“I’m sorry, but Lord Arglay didn’t tell me — only that it might be rather important,” Chloe answered.

The Hajji smiled slightly. “I believe that Lord Arglay did not tell you,” he said, “but I think you must have seen something last night when you went with him to Sir Giles Tumulty’s house.”

“If you know that,” Chloe answered, disagreeably surprised, “you will know that I left before Lord Arglay and wasn’t with him there — not for long.”

“Long enough,” the Hajji nodded. “Do not let us dispute on that, Miss Burnett — it was Miss Burnett your servant said? — or we shall waste our time and our spirit. You know what it is we are seeking, though you may not know all that it means. It is the End of Desire.”

“The end of desire?” Chloe repeated.

“It is called the White Stone and the Stone of Suleiman ben Daood (on whom be the Peace!),” the Hajji went on, “and it has other names also. But that is its best name, as that is its best work. Now that it is at large in the world it may bring much sorrow. I think Lord Arglay would be wise to do what he can to bring it back. No,” he added as he saw Chloe about to make another effort at denial, “You are acting in good faith but it is quite useless. I can see that you know the thing if not the work.

“If you have any definite message,” Chloe said, “I shall be most careful to give it to Lord Arglay.”

“I think you have a premonition of the message,” Hajji Ibrahim answered. “Tell me, have you not seen certain of the marvels of the Stone and are you not afraid in your heart? Else why should you be so shaken at speaking with me?”

“I am not shaken,” Chloe said indignantly.

The other smiled. “Child,” he said, “you have done what you can to be loyal, but you cannot control your eyes, and there is fear at the back of them now. Do not fear us who serve the Stone but fear those who attempt to rule it.”

“What is this Stone?” Chloe asked, hoping rather vainly that the intensity of her feeling would sound like a mere business interest.

“I will tell you what is said of it,” the Hajji said, “and you shall tell Lord Arglay when he returns. It is said that in the Crown of Suleiman ben Daood there was a strange and wonderful Stone, and it is said also that this Stone had belonged of old to the giants, to Nimrod the hunter and his children, and by its virtue Nimrod sought to build Babel which was to reach to heaven. And something of this kind is certainly possible to those who have the Stone. Before Nimrod, our father Adam (the Peace be upon him!) had it, and this only he brought with him out of Paradise when he fled before the swords of the great ones — Michael and Gabriel and Raphael (blessed be they!). And there are those who say that before then it was in the Crown of Iblis the Accursed when he fell from heaven, and that his fall was not assured until that Stone dropped from his head. For yet again it is told that, when the Merciful One made the worlds, first of all He created that Stone and gave it to the Divine One whom the Jews call Shekinah, and as she gazed upon it the universes arose and had being. But afterwards it passed from Iblis to Adam, and from Adam to Nimrod, and from Nimrod to Suleiman, and after Suleiman it came into the sceptre of Octavianus who was called Caesar and Augustus and was lord of Rome. But from Rome it came with Constantine to New Rome, and thence eastward — only in hiding — till our lord Muhammed (blessed be he!) arose to proclaim the Unity. And after he was received into the Mercy it belonged to seven Khalifs, and was taken into Spain when the Faith entered there, and some say that in his wars Charlemagne the Emperor found it and set it under the hilt of his sword, which was called joyeuse because of it, and from that the Franks made a war-shout and cried Montjoy St. Denis. And because of its virtue and his will the Emperor made himself lord of the world. After him the world became very evil, and the Stone made for itself a place of repose and remained therein until today. This is the tale of the Stone of Suleiman, but its meaning is in the mind of him who hears it.”

Chloe Burnett said abruptly, “And they use it for —?”

The Persian smiled. “They use it as they will,” he said. “But there are those who know it by its name which I have told you.”

“But can the end of desire be an evil?” Chloe said.

“If the End is reached too violently it may mean chaos and madness,” Ibrahim told her. “Even in lesser things it is not everyone who can bear to be carried hither and thither, in time or place or thought, and so in the greater it is necessary to grow accustomed to the Repose of the End. I think if you were to set it on your head now and offer your soul to it, the strength of your nature would be overthrown and not transformed by its own strength, and you would be destroyed. There is measure and degree in all things, even upon the Way.”

“The Way?” Chloe asked.

“The Way to the Stone, which is in the Stone,” the old man said. “Yet you have a hint of the holy letters on your forehead, and Allah shall bring you to the Resignation. For you are of Islam at heart.”

“I— of Islam?” Chloe cried. “Do you mean a Muhammedan?”

“There is no God but God and Muhammed is the Prophet of God,” the old man intoned gravely. “Yet the Resignation is within. Say what you will of this to your master, but bid him if he is a wise judge assist us in the restoration of the Stone.”

“But if Sir Giles bought it —” Chloe began.

“He that sold it and he that bought it alike sinned,” the Hajji answered. “Tell your lord that at any time I will come to him to speak of it if he will. For I do not wish my nephew to let war loose on the world.”

“War?” Chloe exclaimed.

“It is the least of the plagues, perhaps,” Ibrahim said. “But tell your master and bid him think what he will do.” Gravely he took his leave, with a murmured benediction, and left Chloe in a state of entire upheaval to await Lord Arglay’s return.

When he came she saw that he was himself perplexed and troubled. But with the exception of asking whether she had had a visitor he said nothing, either of information or inquiry, until after lunch. When they were back in his study he gave her cigarettes and sat down opposite her. “And now,” he said, “let’s talk. No — stop — let us have . . . what Giles left with us here too.” He went for the Stone and set it, rather seriously on the table by them. “Now for your visitor,” he said.

Chloe went over the conversation as far as she could. When she had finished —

“You didn’t tell him about the division of the Stone?” Lord Arglay asked.

“I didn’t tell him anything at all,” Chloe said. “I didn’t have the chance. He did all the talking.”

“Well, that was the idea, after all. I did exactly the same, only less tactfully,” Arglay assured her. “Bruce Cumberlan was in the extreme jumps, all nicely hidden of course, but there without a doubt. He was so sorry — not at all — yes, but he was, only I was the only respectable person in touch with Sir Giles. And they wanted, they very much wanted — well, in short they wanted to know what Sir Giles had been up to. Yesterday, it appears, at some conference on the finances of Baluchistan or the reform of the gendarmerie in the suburbs of Erzerum, the Persian Ambassador whispered in Birlesmere’s ear — he’s the Foreign Secretary, you know. There was a matter of a relic, feloniously abstracted, under cover of a payment which was really a bribe, by one of our nationals. The Ambassador himself had no use for it, nor, he thought, had Riza Khan — but the populace, the fanatical Muhammedan populace . . . his lordship the Secretary would understand. Well, Birlesmere’s used to these unofficial hints, only it seems for the last month things have been a bit more restive than usual all over the Near East, in expanding circles. So he began to sit up. Could his Excellency tell him at all . . .? His Excellency, most unofficially, had heard rumours of Suleiman, and a crown, and even — without any sort of accusation — of Sir Giles Tumulty. He didn’t press, he didn’t even ask, for anything; he only remarked that rumours were about. Pure friendship. Of course if his Britannic Majesty’s Government could reassure him, just in case the Imams (or whatever) went to Riza Khan. There was even a young fellow at the Embassy inclined to make trouble; he would be exchanged certainly — Moscow perhaps. Still . . . Birlesmere was pushed; he had to go off to Sandringham last night, so he switched Cumberland on to it. Who did me the honour to remember that I was Sir Giles’s brother-in-law, and begged me to sound him. Had I heard? Could I think? Would I investigate — delicately? I promised I would, told him nothing, and came away. So there we are.”

They sat and looked at each other. Then Lord Arglay said, “I can only think of one thing to be done at once, and that’s to stop Reginald. He won’t want to run risks with the Government, at least I shouldn’t think so, though he’s thinking’in millions. But he must keep quiet anyhow till I can see Giles again. City five seven three eight,” he added into the telephone. S

“You’ll see Sir Giles when he comes back?” Chloe asked.

“I shall see everybody,” Lord Arglay said. “Giles and the Ambassador and your Hajji and Cumberland again and so on. If I’m in the centre of it I’m going to enjoy it. Is that Mr. Montague’s? Is Mr. Montague in? . . . Lord Arglay . . . That you, Reginald? . . . Look here, I’ve just been in touch with the Foreign Office and I’m rather anxious about you. It’s most important you should do and say nothing, absolutely nothing, about the Stone at present. You’ve got one, haven’t you? Sir Giles left one with you? . . . Yes, well you mustn’t even look at it yet. I’ll tell you . . . what?”

Chloe watched anxiously. In a minute, “O my dear God in heaven!” Lord Arglay said. “No . . . O yes, keep it quiet now. . . . Who is Angus M.. Sheldrake? . . . yes, who? Who? I don’t know his name . . . Oh. Can we get at him? . . . No, I don’t think you’d better; perhaps I will . . . Good-bye.”

He looked round. “Reginald has sold a Stone to a fellow who has made a fortune in gallipots and other pottery ware and is called Angus M. Sheldrake. He is an American and may have left London by now.”

“But,” Chloe cried, “do you mean he’s sold his one Stone already?”

“No,” Lord Arglay said. “He has divided it and sold the new one.”

“But he was going to have it set!” Chloe said.

“But he had a chance of meeting Angus M. Sheldrake, who is the richest man that ever motored across Idaho, and as Angus was leaving London, Reginald scrapped the setting, took an hour to convince him, and did it. While Bruce Cumberland was talking to me about the necessity of caution. Caution! With Reginald being creative. Do you know I entirely forgot he could do that? Ring up the Savoy and see if the unmentionable Sheldrake is still there.”

Chloe leapt to the telephone. After a few minutes —“He’s left London till Monday,” she said.

“And today’s Friday,” Lord Arglay said. “I wish I had Reginald in the dock on an embezzlement charge. Well — I don’t want to see the Ambassador till I’ve seen Giles; not after this morning. You know I’m terrified in case he does start multiplying — either he or Reginald. But I can’t bring him back quicker; if I try he’ll just stop away. I really don’t see what else we can do — till Monday. I can talk to Reginald of course, and I will.”

“Do you believe in it?” Chloe asked.

“In the Stone?” Arglay said. “I suppose I do — in a sense. I don’t know what your friend means by calling it the end of desire.”

“What do you think he meant by saying that the way to the Stone was in the Stone?” Chloe asked again. “And what is the way?’

“I do not know what he meant,” Arglay answered, “though certainly the way to any end is in that end itself For as you cannot know any study but by learning it, or gain any virtue but by practising it, so you cannot be anything but by becoming it. And that sounds obvious enough, doesn’t it? And yet,” he went on as if to himself, “by becoming one thing a man ceases to be that which he was, and no one but he can tell how tragic that change may be. What do you want to be, Chloe?”

The use of her name was natural enough to pass outwardly unheeded, if not unnoticed by some small function of her mind which made a sudden movement of affection towards him. “I do not know,” she said.

“Nor I,” he said, “for myself any more than for you. I am what I am, but it is not enough.”

“You — the Chief Justice,” she said.

“I am the Chief Justice,” he answered, “but the way is in the end, and how far have I become justice? Still”— he recovered lightness and pointed to the typescript of Organic Law —“still we do what we can. Well — Look here now, you can’t do anything till Monday. If there are any developments I will let you know.”

“Are you sure I can’t do anything?” she said doubtfully.

“Neither of us can,” Arglay answered. “You may as well clear off now. Would you like to use the Stone to go home by?”

“No, thank you,” she said. “I think I’m afraid of the Stone.”

“Don’t think of it more than you can help between now and Monday,” Arglay advised her. “Go to the theatre to-night if you can. If anything happens messenger boys in a procession such as preceded the queen of Sheba when she came to Suleiman shall be poured out to tell you all.”

“I was going to the theatre,” she said, “but I thought of postponing it.”

“Nonsense,” said the Chief Justice. “Come on Monday and we’ll tackle Sir Giles and the Ambassador and Angus M. Sheldrake and Reginald and the Hajji and — Bruce Cumberland — and if there are any more we will deal with them also. Run along.”

By midnight however Chloe almost wished she had not followed Lord Arglay’s advice. For she was conscious that the evening had not been a success, and that the young man who accompanied her was conscious of it too. This annoyed her, for in matters of pleasure she had a high sense of duty, and not to cause gaiety appeared to her as a failure in morals. Besides, Frank Lindsay was working very hard — for some examination in surveying and estate agency — working in an office all day and then at home in the evening, and he ought to be made as happy as possible. But all her efforts and permissions and responses had been vain; she had said good night to her companion with an irritable sense of futility which she just prevented herself expressing. He had, as a matter of fact, been vainly contending all the evening, without knowing it, against two preoccupations in Chloe’s mind — the Stone and Lord Arglay. Not only did the Stone lie there, a palpitating centre of wonder and terror, but against the striving endeavour of Frank Lindsay’s rather pathetic culture moved the assured placidity of Lord Arglay’s. It did not make Frank less delightful in the exchanges discoverable by him and her together, but it threw into high relief the insufficiency of those exchanges as more than an occupation and a means of oblivion; it managed to spoil them while providing no substitute and no answer for the desires that thrilled her.

It seemed to her that all things did just so much and no more. As, lying awake that night, she reviewed her activities and preoccupations, there appeared nothing that consumed more than a little part of her being, or brought her, by physical excitement or mental concentration, more than forgetfulness. Nothing justified her existence. The immortal sadness of youth possessed her, and a sorrow of which youth is not always conscious, the lucid knowledge of her unsatisfied desires. There was nothing, she thought, that could be trusted; the dearest delight might betray, the gayest friendship open upon a treachery and a martyrdom. Of her friends, of her young male friends especially, pleasant as they were, there was not one, she thought, who held that friendship important for her sake rather than for his own enjoyment. Even that again was but her own selfishness; what right had she to the devotion of any other? And was there any devotion beyond the sudden overwhelming madness of sex? And in that hot airless tunnel of emotion what pleasure was there and what joy? Laughter died there, and lucidity, and the clear intelligence she loved, and there was nothing of the peace for which she hungered.

Her thought went off at a tangent to Reginald Montague’s preoccupation with the Stone. If there could be an end to desire, was it thus that it should be used? Was it only that men might hurry the more and hurl themselves about as if the speed of Chloe Burnett or Reginald Montague were of moment to the universe? She hated Montague, she hated Sir Giles, she hated Frank Lindsay — poor dear! — she hated — no, she did not hate Lord Arglay, but she hated the old man who had come to her and talked of kings and prophets and heroes till she was dizzy with happiness and dread. Most of all she hated herself. The dark mystery of being that possessed her held no promise of light, but she turned to it and sank into it content so to avoid the world.

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