The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter One

The Lioness

From the top of the bank, behind a sparse hedge of thorn, the lioness stared at the Hertfordshire road. She moved her head from side to side, then suddenly she became rigid as if she had scented prey or enemy; she crouched lower, her body trembling, her tail swishing, but she made no sound.

Almost a mile away Quentin Sabot jumped from the gate on which he had been sitting and looked at his wrist-watch.

“I don’t see much sign of this bus of yours,” he said, glancing along the road.

Anthony Durrant looked in the same direction. “Shall we wander along and meet it?”

“Or go on and let it catch us up?” Quentin suggested. “After all, that’s our direction.”

“The chief use of the material world,” Anthony said, still sitting on the gate, “is that one can, just occasionally, say that with truth. Yes, let’s.” He got down leisurely and yawned. “I feel I could talk better on top of a bus than on my feet just now,” he went on. “How many miles have we done, should you think?”

“Twenty-three?” Quentin hazarded.

“Thereabouts,” the other nodded, and stretched himself lazily. “Well, if we’re going on, let’s.” And as they began to stroll slowly along, “Mightn’t it be a good thing if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind — say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?”

“And arrows showing the directions he wanted to go?” Quentin asked idly.

“They’d be all over the place,” Anthony sighed. “Like that light which I see bobbing about in front of me now.”

“I see several,” Quentin broke in. “What are they — lanterns?”

“They look like them? three — five,” Anthony said. “They’re moving about, so it can’t be the road up or anything.”

“They may be hanging the lanterns on poles,” Quentin protested.

“But,” Anthony answered, as they drew nearer to the shifting lanterns, “they are not. Mortality, as usual, carries its own star.”

He broke off as a man from the group in front beckoned to them with something like a shout. “This is very unusual,” he added. “Have I at last found someone who needs me?”

“They all seem very excited,” Quentin said, and had no time for more. There were some dozen men in the group the two had reached, and Quentin and Anthony stared at it in amazement. For all the men were armed — four or five with rifles, two with pitchforks; others who carried the lanterns had heavy sticks. One of the men with rifles spoke sharply, “Didn’t you hear the warning that’s been sent out?”

“I’m afraid we didn’t,” Anthony told him. “Ought we?”

“We’ve sent a man to all the cross-roads this half hour or more,” the other said. “Where have you come from that you didn’t meet him?”

“Well, for half an hour we’ve been sitting on a gate waiting for a bus,” Anthony explained, and was surprised to hear two or three of the men break into a short laugh, while another added sardonically, “And so you might wait.” He was about to ask further when the first speaker said sharply, “The fact is there’s a lioness loose somewhere round here, and we’re after it.”

“The devil there is!” Quentin exclaimed, while Anthony, more polite, said, “I see — yes. That does seem a case for warning people. But we’ve been resting down there and I suppose your man made straight for the cross-roads and missed us.” He waited to hear more.

“It got away from a damned wild beast show over there,” the other said, nodding across the darkening fields, “close by Smetham. We’re putting a cordon of men and lights round all the part as quickly as we can and warning the people in the houses. Everything on the roads has been turned away — that’s why you missed your bus.”

“It seems quite a good reason,” Anthony answered. “Was it a large lioness? Or a fierce one?”

“Fierce be damned,” said another man, who possibly belonged to the show. “It was as tame as a white mouse, only some fool startled it.”

“I’ll make it a darn sight tamer if I get a shot at it,” the first man said. “Look here, you gentlemen had better get straight ahead as fast as you can. We’re going to meet some others and then beat across the fields to that wood — that’s where it’ll be.”

“Can’t we help you?” Anthony asked, looking round him. “It seems such a pity to miss the nearest thing to a lion hunt we’re ever likely to find.”

But the other had made up his mind. “You’ll be more use at the other end,” he said. “That’s where we want the numbers. About a mile up that way there’s the main road, and the more we’ve got there the better. It isn’t likely to be on any road — not even this one — unless it just dashes across, so you’ll be pretty safe, safer along here than you will be across the fields with us. Unless you’re used to country by night.”

“No,” Anthony admitted, “not beyond an occasional evening like this.” He looked at Quentin, who looked back with an expression of combined anxiety and amusement, murmuring, “I suppose we go on, then — as far as the main road.”

“Yoicks — and so on,” Anthony assented. “Good night then, unless we see you at the end. Good luck to your hunting.”

“It ought to be forbidden,” a man who had hitherto been silent said angrily. “What about the sheep?”

“O keep quiet,” the first man snapped back, and during the half-suppressed wrangle the two friends parted from the group, and stepped out, with more speed and more excitement than before, down the road in front of them.

“What enormous fun!” Anthony said, in an unintentionally subdued voice. “What do we do if we see it?”

“Bolt,” Quentin answered firmly. “I don’t want to be any more thrilled than I am now. Unless it’s going in the other direction.”

“What a day!” Anthony said. “As a matter of fact, I expect it’d be just as likely to bolt as we should.”

“It might think we were its owners,” Quentin pointed out, “and come trotting or lolloping or whatever they do up to us. Do you save me by luring it after you, or do I save you?”

“O you save me, thank you,” Anthony said. “These hedges are infernally low, aren’t they? What I feel I should like to be in is an express train on a high viaduct.”

“I hope you still think that ideas are more dangerous than material things,” Quentin said. “That was what you were arguing at lunch.”

Anthony pondered while glancing from side to side before he answered, “Yes, I do. All material danger is limited, whereas interior danger is unlimited. It’s more dangerous for you to hate than to kill, isn’t it?”

“To me or to the other fellow?” Quentin asked.

“To — I suppose one would have to say — to the world in general,” Anthony suggested. “But I simply can’t keep it up now. I think it’s splendid of you, Quentin, but the lioness, though a less, is a more pressing danger even than your intellectual errors. Hallo, here’s a gate. I suppose this is one of the houses they were talking about.”

They stopped before it; Quentin glanced back along the road they had come, and suddenly caught Anthony by the arm, exclaiming, “There! There!”

But his friend had already seen. A long low body had slithered down the right-hand bank some couple of hundred yards away, had paused for a moment turning its head and switching its tail, and had then begun to come leaping in their direction. It might have been mere friendliness or even ignorance — the two young men did not wait to see; they were through the gate and up the short garden path in a moment. In the dark shelter of the porch they paused. Anthony’s hand touched the knocker and stayed.

“Better not make a row perhaps,” he said. “Besides, all the windows were dark, did you notice? If there’s no one at home, hadn’t we better keep quiet?”

There was no reply unless Quentin’s renewed clasp of his arm could be taken for one. The straight path to the gate by which they had entered divided a broad lawn; on each side of it the grass stretched away and was lost in the shade of a row of trees which shut it off from the neighbouring fields. The moon was not high, and any movement under the trees was invisible. But the moonlight lay faintly on the lawn, the gate, and the road beyond, and it was at the road that the two young men gazed. For there, halting upon her way, was the lioness. She had paused as if she heard or felt some attraction; her head was turned towards the garden, and she was lifting her front paws restlessly. Suddenly, while they watched, she swung round facing it, threw up her head, and sent out a long howl. Anthony felt feverishly at the door behind him, but he found no latch or handle — this was something more than the ordinary cottage and was consequently more hostile to strangers. The lioness threw up her head again, began to howl, and suddenly ceased, at the same instant that another figure appeared on the lawn. From their right side came a man’s form, pacing as if in a slow abstraction. His hands were clasped behind him; his heavy bearded face showed no emotion; his eyes were directed in front of him, looking away towards the other side of the lawn. He moved slowly and paused between each step, but steps and pauses were coordinated in a rhythm of which, even at that moment of strain, the two young men were intensely aware. Indeed, as Anthony watched, his own breathing became quieter and deeper; his tightened body relaxed, and his eyes left turning excitedly towards the beast crouching in the road. In Quentin no such effect was observable, but even he remained in an attitude of attention devoted rather to the man than the beast. So the strange pattern remained until, always very slowly, the stranger came to the path down the garden, and made one of his pauses in its midst, directly between the human and the animal spectators. Anthony thought to himself, “I ought to warn him,” but somehow he could not; it would have seemed bad manners to break in on the concentrated silence of that figure. Quentin dared not; looking past the man, he saw the lioness and thought in hasty excuse, “If I make no noise at all she may keep quiet.”

At that moment a shout not very far away broke the silence, and at once the garden was disturbed by violent movement. The lioness as if startled made one leap over the gate, and her flying form seemed to collide with the man just as he also began to take another rhythmical step. Forms and shadows twisted and mingled for two or three seconds in the middle of the garden, a tearing human cry began and ceased as if choked into silence, a snarl broke out and died swiftly into similar stillness, and as if in answer to both sounds there came the roar of a lion — not very loud, but as if subdued by distance rather than by mildness. With that roar the shadows settled, the garden became clear. Anthony and Quentin saw before them the form of a man lying on the ground, and standing over him the shape of a full-grown and tremendous lion, its head flung back, its mouth open, its body quivering. It ceased to roar, and gathered itself back into itself. It was a lion such as the young men had never seen in any zoo or menagerie; it was gigantic and seemed to their dazed senses to be growing larger every moment. Of their presence it appeared unconscious; awful and solitary it stood, and did not at first so much as turn its head. Then, majestically, it moved; it took up the slow forward pacing in the direction which the man had been following; it passed onward, and while they still stared it entered into the dark shadow of the trees and was hidden from sight. The man’s form still lay prostrate; of the lioness there was no sign.

Minutes seemed to pass; at last Anthony looked round at Quentin. “We’d better have a look at him, hadn’t we?” he whispered.

“What in God’s name has happened?” Quentin said. “Did you see . . . where’s the . . . Anthony, what’s happened?”

“We’d better have a look at him,” Anthony said again, but this time as a statement, not an enquiry. He moved very cautiously nevertheless, and looked in every direction before he ventured from the shelter of the doorway. Over his shoulder he said, “But there was a lioness? What did you think you saw?”

“I saw a lion,” Quentin stammered. “No, I didn’t; I saw . . . O my God, Anthony, let’s get out of it. Let’s take the risk and run.”

“We can’t leave him like this,” Anthony said. “You keep a watch while I run out and look, or drag him in here if I can. Shout if you see anything.”

He dashed out to the fallen man, dropped on a knee by him, still glancing quickly round, bent over the body, peered at it, caught it, and rising tried to move it. But in a moment he desisted and ran back to his friend.

“I can’t move him,” he panted. “Will the door open? No. But there must be a back way. We must get him inside; you’ll have to give me a hand. But I’d better find the way in first. I can’t make it out; there’s no wound and no bruise so far as I can see: it’s the most extraordinary thing. You watch here; but don’t go doing anything except shout — if you can. I won’t be a second.”

He slipped away before Quentin could answer — but nothing, no shout, no roar, no snarl, no human or bestial footfall, broke the silence until he returned. “I’ve found the door,” he began; but Quentin interrupted: “Did you see anything?”

“Damn all,” said Anthony. “Not a sight or a sound. No shining eyes, no — Quentin, did you see a lion?”

“Yes,” Quentin said nervously.

“So did I,” Anthony agreed. “And did you see where the lioness went to?”

“No,” Quentin said, still shooting glances over the garden.

“Are there two escaped animals then?” Anthony asked. “Well, anyhow, the thing is to get this fellow into the house. I’ll take his head and you his — O my God, what’s that?”

His cry, however, was answered reassuringly. For the sound that had startled him was this time only the call of a human voice not far off, and it was answered by another still nearer. It seemed the searchers for the lioness were drawing closer. Lights, many lights, were moving across the field opposite; calls were heard on the road. Anthony turned hastily to Quentin, but before he could speak, a man had stopped at the gate and exclaimed. Anthony ran down the garden, and met him as, others gathering behind him, he came through the gate.

“Hallo, what’s up here?” he said. “What — O is it you, sir?”

He was the man with whom the friends had talked before. He went straight to the prostrate man, bent over him, felt his heart and touched him here and there; then he looked up in perplexity.

“Fainted, has he?” he said. “I thought it might — just possibly — have been this damned beast. But it can’t have been; he’d have been mauled if it had touched him — and I don’t suppose it would. Do you know what happened?”

“Not very well,” Anthony said. “We did see the lioness, as it happened, in the road — and we more or less sprinted up here and then this man, whoever he is —”

“O, I know who he is,” the other said. “He lives here; his name’s Berringer. D’you suppose he saw the creature? But we’d better move him, hadn’t we? Get him inside, I mean?”

“We were just going to,” Anthony said. “This door’s shut, but I’ve got the back one open.”

“Right ho!” the other answered. “I’d better slip in and warn his housekeeper, if she’s about. One or two of us will give you gentlemen a hand.” He waved to the small group by the gate, and they came in, to have explained what was needed. Then their leader went quickly round the house while Anthony, Quentin, and the rest began to lift the unconscious Mr. Berringer.

It was more difficult to do so than they had expected. To begin with, they seemed unable to get the proper purchase. His body was not so much heavy as immovable — and yet not rigid. It yielded to them gently, but however they tried to slip their arms underneath they could not at first manage to lift it. Quentin and Anthony had a similar difficulty with the legs; and indeed Anthony was so startled at the resistance where he had expected a light passivity that he almost fell forward. At last, however, their combined efforts did raise him. Once lifted, he could be carried easily enough along the front of the house, but when they tried to turn the corner they found an unplaceable difficulty in doing so. It wasn’t weight; it wasn’t wind; it wasn’t darkness; it was just that when they had all moved they seemed to be where they were before. Anthony, being in front, realised that something had gone wrong, and without being clear whether he were speaking to the body or the bearers, to himself or his friend, said sharply and commandingly: “O come on!” The general effort that succeeded took them round, and so at last they reached the back door, where the leader and a disturbed old woman whom Anthony assumed to be the housekeeper were waiting.

“Upstairs,” she said, “to his own bedroom. Look, I’ll show you. Dear, dear. O do be careful”— and so on till at last Berringer was laid on his bed, and, still under the directions of the housekeeper, undressed and got into it.

“I’ve telephoned to a doctor,” the leader said to Anthony, who had withdrawn from the undressing process. “It’s very curious: his breathing’s normal; his heart seems all right. Shock, I suppose. If he saw that damned thing — You couldn’t see what happened?”

“Not very well,” said Anthony. “We saw him fall, and — and —— It was a lioness that got away, wasn’t it? Not a lion?”

The other looked at him suspiciously. “Of course it wasn’t a lion,” he said. “There’s been no lion in these parts that I ever heard of, and only one lioness, and there won’t be that much longer. Damned slinking brute! What d’ye mean — lion?”

“No,” said Anthony, “quite. Of course, if there wasn’t a lion — I mean — O well, I mean there wasn’t if there wasn’t, was there?”

The face of the other darkened. “I daresay it all seems very funny to you gentlemen,” he said. “A great joke, no doubt. But if that’s what you think’s a joke —”

“No, no,” Anthony said hastily. “I wasn’t joking. Only —” He gave it up; it would have sounded too silly. After all, if they were looking for a lioness and found a lion . . . well, if they were looking for the lioness properly, it presumably wouldn’t make much difference. Besides, anyhow, it couldn’t have been a lion. Not unless there were two menageries and two —“O God, what a day!” Anthony sighed; and turned to Quentin.

“The high road, I think,” he said. “And any kind of bus anywhere, don’t you? We’re simply in the way here. But, damn it!” he added to himself, “it was a lion.”

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