Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eight

The Conference

The room at the Foreign Office was large enough not to be crowded. Lord Birlesmere sat in a chair dexterously arranged at the corner of a table, thus allowing him to control without compelling him to preside. Next to him sat Lord Arglay with Chloe by his side; opposite was Mr. Sheldrake in a state of very bitter irritation. Reginald Montague was in an equal state of nervousness next to Chloe. Mr. Doncaster was next to Sheldrake, and a little apart were Professor Palliser and Sir Giles Tumulty. At the bottom of the table were Mr. Bruce Cumberland and a high police official. The Persian Embassy was not represented. It was about 11 o’clock on Monday.

Lord Birlesmere leant a little forward. “Gentlemen,” he began, “you know, I think, why we have troubled you and why you have consented to come here. The very surprising demonstrations at Rich during the week-end are a matter which do not concern this particular Office, but — as most of you at any rate know — those demonstrations are said to be connected with a substance, reputedly a relic, in the existence and preservation of which a foreign Power has declared itself to be interested. I need not detain you now to explain to what extent that Power’s representatives have taken official action. But I may say, in passing, that I myself have reason to believe that certain agitations and disturbances in the Near East during the last two months have the same cause . . . ”

“What cause?” Mr. Sheldrake interrupted irritably.

“A concern,” Lord Birlesmere flowed on, “with the existence and disposal of this hypothetical relic. I am anxious to discover, on behalf of the Government, of what nature this is, whether it is one or many, to whom it now belongs, and in whose Possession it now is, and how far the claims of any foreign Power can be justified. I need not say that I and any other representatives of the authorities here will treat every communication made: as confidential, or that if any of you wish to make a private statement we shall be pleased to give you immediate opportunities.”

Nobody leapt at the opportunity. Lord Birlesmere said across the table: “I believe, Mr. Sheldrake, you claim that this supposed relic belongs to you?”

“I know nothing whatever about relics,” Sheldrake answered. “I know that only last Friday I bought from Mr. Montague a kind of stone which he assured me could produce certain remarkable results. I tested his claims and they seemed justified; and as a result of these tests I gave him my cheque for seventy-three thousand guineas.”

“Did you understand,” Lord Birlesmere asked, “that this was the only stone of its kind in existence?”

“No,” Sheldrake admitted rather reluctantly, “I understood there were three or four.”

“And by a series of events this Stone came into the hands of Mr. Doncaster and thence to the police, performing apparently some remarkable cures on its way — yes,” Lord Birlesmere said, “we needn’t go into that now. Except, Mr. Doncaster, that you think these cures may really have been produced by the Stone? Or anyhow,” he added, seeing that Oliver was prepared to discuss this for a long time, “you see nothing against that hypothesis?”

“Well, nothing except —” Oliver began.

“Practically nothing at the moment,” Lord Birlesmere substituted. “Quite. Well now, Mr. Montague, would you mind telling us where you got the Stone?”

“My uncle gave it me,” Reginald said very quickly. “Sir Giles.” He met Sir Giles’s eyes and shivered a little.

Lord Birlesmere, having reached the desired point by a more gentle method than by mere attack, looked at Sir Giles with an engaging smile. “I wonder whether you would mind telling us exactly what you know about the Stone, Sir Giles,” he said.

“I don’t mind telling you,” Sir Giles said, “but I’m damned if I see why I should. Why on earth should I tell this private detective agency everything about my personal affairs, because an auriferous Yankee loses his purse?”

Lord Arglay observed round the table a slight perplexity, except where Mr. Sheldrake jerked upright and Reginald stared downwards. In an undertone to Chloe he said: “I don’t really know why he should, do you?” But Chloe was looking, rather inimically for her, at Sir Giles.

Lord Birlesmere glanced at Bruce Cumberland, who said: “Merely as a friendly act, Sir Giles, you might be willing to assist the inquiry.”

“But in the first place,” Sir Giles answered, “I don’t see any friends here — except perhaps the Professor, and secondly, I don’t know what I’ve got to do with the inquiry. Whoever’s been curing the village idiots of England it isn’t me. I’ve got something else to do than to cure old women of paralytic delirium.”

“The properties of the Stone . . . ” Mr. Cumberland began again.

“The properties of the Stone,” Sir Giles interrupted, “are for scientists to determine — not politicians, policemen, and prostitutes.”

Mr. Sheldrake jerked again, and kept his eyes away from Chloe with an effort. So did everyone else, except Lord Arglay who smiled at her and then looked at Lord Birlesmere. The Foreign Secretary, caught between ignoring the word and thus appearing to allow it and protesting and thus permitting the whole conversation to wander off on to a useless path, said in a perfectly audible voice to Mr. Sheldrake: “Sir Giles, like other great men, is a little eccentric in his phrases sometimes, but Sir Giles refused to be excused.

“Well, I suppose the Foreign Secretary is a politician,” he said, “and a Scotland Yard Commissioner is a policeman. Eh? Very well then —!”

Bruce Cumberland leaned across towards the Chief Justice. “perhaps,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “Miss Burnett would like to withdraw. I mean, you see . . . ”

Chloe’s hand touched Lord Arglay’s arm. “Don’t make me go,” she breathed to him.

“Ah,” Lord Birlesmere said, delighted at the suggestion, “now if in the unusual circumstances Miss Burnett would oblige me personally by rendering the inquiry easier . . . We want,” he went on rather vaguely, “to have no restraints imposed, though if the matter were less urgent . . . ”

“My dear Birlesmere,” Arglay said patiently, “neither Miss Burnett nor I have the least objection to Sir Giles using any language he finds congenial. We haven’t even a police-court acquittal against us, and any apology seems to me to be chiefly due to the English language which is being wildly misused. Pray consider our feelings unruffled.”

“Very good of you,” Lord Birlesmere, rather perplexed, murmured, and returned to Sir Giles who was feeling in a waistcoat pocket and snarling at the Chief Justice. “The point is, Sir Giles,” he said, “that it is necessary for the Government to know, first, what justification there is for foreign claims to the Stone; secondly, what properties the Stone possesses; and thirdly, how many there are in existence.”

“The answers,” Tumulty said, “are that no foreign claim to the Stone has any validity, that Professor Palliser and I are at work on an investigation of its qualities, and that I cannot tell You how many stones exist for a reason I can show you.” He felt in his pocket again.

“The qualities,” Lord Birlesmere said, “are said to include rapid transit through space and singular curative powers.”

“Transit through time and space,” Sir Giles corrected him. “Two hundred miles or two hundred hours.” He pushed his chair a little away from the table and set another — his own Stone on his knee. “Don’t crowd me, gentlemen,” he went on, “or I shall have to remove myself at once. This is not the Stone Mr. Sheldrake flung away.”

“Like the poor Indian,” Oliver Doncaster put in, being a little tired of having no chance to say anything, but no one took any notice except the Chief Justice who, glancing at Sheldrake, altered Shakespeare into Pope by murmuring “whose untutored mind.”

“If the Government,” Sir Giles went on, “wish to conduct an inquiry into the nature of the Stone I shall be happy to assist them by supplying examples.” He covered the Stone on his knee with both hands and apparently in some intense effort shut his eyes for a minute or two. The inquiry looked perplexed and doubtful, and it was Chloe who suddenly broke the silence by jumping to her feet and running round the table. Sir Giles, hearing the movement, opened his eyes just as Palliser thrust his chair back in Chloe’s path, and leapt up in his turn, throwing as he did so about a dozen Stones, all exactly similar, on to the table. Everybody jumped up in confusion, as Chloe, still silent, caught Palliser’s chair with a vicious jerk that unbalanced and overthrew the Professor, and sprang towards Tumulty. Sir Giles, the Stone clasped in one hand and his open knife still in the other, met her with a snarl. “Go to hell,” he said, and slashed out with the knife as she caught at his wrist.

“Miss Burnett! Miss Burnett!” half the table cried. “Miss Burnett! Sir Giles!” Lord Birlesmere exclaimed. Mr. Sheldrake, his mouth open in dismay, caught up two or three of the Stones and looked at them. Lord Arglay, leaning over the table, struck Doncaster’s shoulder sharply: “Get that knife away from him,” he said, and himself ran round after Chloe. Palliser, scrambling to his feet, thrust himself in Doncaster’s way. “Lord Birlesmere,” he called. “I protest! I demand that you shall stop this attack.”

“Get out, you —” Sir Giles yelled at Chloe. The knife had shut on her fingers and blood was on her hand. But her other had already caught Tumulty’s wrist and was struggling with his for the Stone. Lord Arglay’s arrival did not seem materially to help her; it was Tumulty, who, as everyone rushed to do something to end the scuffle, let go of the Stone, slipped to one side, reached the table, and caught up one or two of the Types which, to the Chief Justice’s hasty glance, seemed to cover it. There were by now half a dozen bodies between Chloe and Sir Giles, who however had only distanced a foe to meet a fidget. Sheldrake clutched at him. “What are you doing?” he shrieked. “What are you doing with my stone?”

“Lord Birlesmere,” Sir Giles said, “unless you stop that hellcat of Arglay’s I’ll ruin everything. I’ll go off and flood the country with Stones. I can and I will.”

Lord Birlesmere said passionately, “Miss Burnett, please be quiet. You’d better go; you’d really better go.”

The Chief Justice gave Chloe a handkerchief. “You attend to Tumulty, Birlesmere,” he said. “The real proceedings are only just beginning. All mankind has been searching for this Stone, and now the English Government has got it.”

Lord Birlesmere came back to the table and stood by Sir Giles. “What does it mean?” he said.

“I will tell you now,” Tumulty answered. “Anyone who has this Stone can heal himself of all illnesses, and can move at once through space and time, and can multiply it by dividing it as much as he wishes. There will be no need of doctors or nurses or railways or tubes or trams or taxis or airships or any transport — except for heavy luggage, and I’m not sure about that — if I scatter this Stone through the country. How do you like the idea? Look,” he said, “I’ll show you. Will to be somewhere — in Westminster Abbey.” He thrust one of the Types into the Foreign Secretary’s hand, who took it, looked at it, looked at Sir Giles, hesitated, then seemed to concentrate — and suddenly neither he nor Tumulty were there.

As the others jumped and gaped Arglay said to Chloe, “You can’t do any more. They have it here. Go back home and wait for me.”

“I suppose I was a fool,” Chloe said in a low tone. “But I did so hate to see him sitting there, and know what he was doing. And if I’d screamed at them no one would have done anything.”

Arglay nodded. “It is clear,” he began, “that here — no, never mind. I’ll tell you presently. Wait.” He stepped to the table and picked up one of the Types. Mr. Bruce Cumberland began to say something. Lord Arglay looked at him and went back to Chloe. “Take this,” he said. “No, take it. Thrice is he armed, of course, but I would rather you could come to me.”

“I don’t like to touch it,” Chloe looked at it in a kind of awe.

“To the pure all things are pure, even purity,” Lord Arglay said. “Take it, child. And keep it near you, for I do not think we know what may happen, but I think the Stone is on your side.”

“What do you mean?” Chloe asked. “On our side?”

“I haven’t an idea,” Lord Arglay answered. “But I think so. Now go. Go to Lancaster Gate and wait for me. Go before the Foreign Secretary and that Gadarene swine return.” He took her to the door, and as he returned was met by Mr. Bruce Cumberland.

“Has Miss Burnett gone?” the secretary said. “I don’t know whether Lord Birlesmere might not want her not to go before —”

“My dear Mr. Cumberland,” the Chief Justice said, “your certainties are as mixed as your negatives. Hasn’t Lord Birlesmere been asking her to go in every kind of voice? And now I’ve urged her to, just to please him. And you’re still not happy. How difficult you diplomats are!”

“Yes, but she took one of the Stones,” Bruce Cumberland protested.

“Well,” Lord Arglay said, sitting down leisurely, “I can easily make you another — ten, twenty more. At least, I can’t, because I don’t want to annoy Suleiman ben Daood — on whom be the Peace! as my friend the Hajji would say. If it belongs to him. But you can make them for yourself. What a time Giles is, showing Birlesmere the tombs in Westminster Abbey!”

Bruce Cumberland gave up the argument and they waited in silence for the return of the others. When this took place Sir Giles, with a glance round the room and a triumphant grin at Arglay, flung himself into a chair. Lord Birlesmere stood leaning on the table for some time. Then he said: “I think, gentlemen, there is nothing more that can profitably be done now. I am very much obliged to all of you.” He paused, bowed, added something in a low voice to Mr. Sheldrake, and sat down. The American did the same thing. Lord Arglay watched thoughtfully till the others had withdrawn and Lord Birlesmere was looking at him restlessly. He considered for a moment the three opposite him, and said quietly. “No, Birlesmere; you’re like Salisbury, you’re backing the wrong horse. And if Mr. Sheldrake wants to get his seventy thousand pounds restored I think that he’s riding the wrong way. As for you, Tumulty, I don’t think you know where you’re riding.” He got up and strolled slowly to the door.

The important conference now began. That Sir Giles was a member of it was due largely to the importance he seemed to have as the origin and scientific investigator of the Stone rather than to any actual need of him. But his impatience Prevented a good deal of time being lost in an international wrangle, since neither Birlesmere nor Sheldrake wished more Types to exist than could be helped, while Tumulty was entirely reckless. All that he wanted was opportunity to investigate the qualities of the Stone, without exposing himself to any serious risk of unexpected results; and this he saw a chance of obtaining by an understanding with the Government. But to both of the others the monopoly of the Stone was rapidly becoming a matter of the first importance, and under pressure from Sir Giles something very like the first draft of a new Anglo–American treaty was reached in half an hour or so. Sheldrake had vague personal and semi-official relations with the President, and promised to bring the whole thing privately to his notice. With instruments of this nature at their disposal, and a judicious use of them, he and the Foreign Secretary saw infinite possibilities of developing power. Only one thing stood in their way, and it was this hindrance they were anxious for Sir Giles to remove. At present the successful use of the Stone depended entirely on the individual will. But for purposes of national control, it was necessary that the controllers should be able to move masses of men without the masses having a choice. It was clear that no army which had been supplied with Types of the Stone could be relied on. Mutiny might be dangerous but transit of this sort would be safe and easy. For the first time in history the weakest thing was on a level, was indeed better off, than the strongest. Besides, as Sir Giles with a certain glee pointed out, in war nothing but mortal wounds would be any use; others could be healed at once, and wars would become interminable. It was Lord Birlesmere who asked whether, if the Stone could heal so easily, it could also repair wastage; that is, prove a substitute for food. “But then,” he added, startled, “it would practically confer immortality. The world would in time become over-crowded; you would be adding without taking away.”

“You might,” Sir Giles said, “use it as the perfect contraceptive.”

Mr. Sheldrake looked down his nose. The conversation seemed to him to be becoming obscene.

“Under control,” Lord Birlesmere said thoughtfully, “always, always under control. We must find out what it can do; you must, Sir Giles.”

“I ask nothing better,” Sir Giles said. “But you Puritans have always made such a fuss about vivisection, let alone human, vivisection.”

“No one,” Lord Birlesmere exclaimed, “is suggesting vivisection. There is a difference between harmless experiments and vivisection.”

“I can have living bodies?” Sir Giles asked.

“Well, there are prisons — and workhouses — and hospitals — and barracks,” Birlesmere answered slowly. “Judiciously, of course. I mean, a careful investigation of the possibilities.” He was distracted by Mr. Sheldrake’s clamour for a licensed monopoly of the Stone for use in transit.

It took longer to satisfy the American than the scientist. Lord Birlesmere was perfectly willing to give up bodies to experiment, so far as he could, but he was very reluctant to interfere with the right of any citizen into whose possession the Stone might come, to use it as he chose. Yet nothing else, it was clear, would be of any use.

The possession of the Stone would have to be made illegal. And therefore the Types would have to be recovered. Of such Types, besides those on the table, there were at least four — Professor Palliser had one (“I’ll answer for him,” Sir Giles said), Reginald Montague (“and you can deal with him,” he added, “frightening him will do it”), Lord Arglay, and Miss Burnett.

They looked at each other. It might be rather a difficult thing to persuade the Chief Justice to give up anything he had a right to possess and an interest in keeping.

“What about a secret Order in Council?” Sheldrake soared to new heights of romanticism.

“I don’t know the legal aspect,” Birlesmere muttered. “And he probably would. The English law is a difficult study, my dear Mr. Sheldrake, and Lord Arglay would probably know a good deal about it. I might consult the Law Officers — but even then — and Miss Burnett too. Being his secretary makes it so awkward . . . ”

There was a prolonged silence. Then Sir Giles said suddenly: “What about this foreign Power of yours?”

“What about it?” Birlesmere asked in surprise.

“Persia, wasn’t it?” Sir Giles said. “I had some carpet-weaver of theirs to dinner to find out about the Stone. And if they burgled me — and I’m almost sure they didvvhat about a neat little burglary at Lancaster Gate? And at — where does that girl live?”

Birlesmere shook his head. “It means them getting the Stone,” he objected, “and I’d much rather Arglay had it. Well, I’ll think about it. Perhaps a friendly appeal —”

Sir Giles made a peculiar noise and rather reluctantly abandoned the subject. He disliked any Types being in Arglay’s and Chloe’s possession, but his dislike was not strong enough to urge him to extreme action. But as, a little later, a temporary agreement having been arrived at, he left the Foreign Office, it occurred to him that if the Stone had shown his own action to the Chief Justice, it could be used also to discover what was in Arglay’s mind, and to suggest other modes of action. With this idea possessing him he rejoined Palliser, who was staying at Ealing.

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