The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams

Chapter Seven

Investigations Into A Religion

Dr. Rockbotham leaned back and looked at his watch. Mrs. Rockbotham looked at him. Dinner was just over; in a quarter of an hour he had to be in his surgery. The maid entered the room with a card on a salver. Dr. Rockbotham took it.

“Anthony Durrant,” he read out and looked over at his wife enquiringly. She thought and shook her head.

“No,” she began, and then “O wait a minute! Yes, I believe I do remember. He’s one of my cousin’s people on The Two Camps. I met him there once.”

“He’s very anxious to see you, sir,” the maid said.

“But what can he want?” Dr. Rockbotham asked his wife. “If you know him, Elise, you’d better come along and see him too. I can’t give him very long now, and I’ve had a tiring day. Really, people do come at the most inconvenient times.”

His protest however was only half-serious, and he turned a benign face on Anthony in the drawing-room. “Mr. Durrant? My wife thinks she remembers you, Mr. Durrant. You’re on The Two Camps, aren’t you? Yes, yes. Well, as you’ve met there’s no need for introductions. Sit down, do. And what can we do for you, Mr. Durrant?”

“I’ve really only called to ask — if I may — a question about Mr. Berringer,” Anthony said. “We heard in London that he was very ill, and as he’s a person of some importance” (this, he thought guiltily, is the Archetypal Lie) “I thought I’d run down and enquire. As a matter of fact, there was some sort of idea that he should do a series of articles for us on . . . on the symbolism of the cosmic myths.”

Mrs. Rockbotham nodded in pleasure. “I mentioned something of the sort to my cousin once,” she said. “I’m delighted to find that he followed it up. An excellent idea.”

Anthony’s heart sank a little; he foresaw, if the world were not swallowed up, some difficulty in the future. “We were,” he said, “so sorry to hear he was ill. The housekeeper didn’t seem to know much, and as Mr. Tighe — whom you know, I think — mentioned that you were attending him, I ventured . . . ”

“Certainly, certainly,” Dr. Rockbotham said. “These notorieties, eh? Famous men, and so on. Well, yes. I’m afraid he is ill.”

“Seriously?” Anthony asked.

“O well, seriously —” The doctor paused. “An affection of the brain, I very much fear. He’s more or less in a state of unconsciousness, and of course in such cases it’s a little difficult to explain in non-technical language. A nurse has been installed, and I’m keeping a careful watch. If necessary I shall take the responsibility of getting another opinion. You don’t, I suppose, know the name or address of any of his friends or his solicitor, do you?”

“I’m afraid not,” Anthony said.

“It’s a little difficult position,” Dr. Rockbotham went on. “His housekeeper knows of no one; of course I haven’t looked at his papers yet . . . if I could get in touch with anyone . . . ”

“If I can do anything —” Anthony offered. “But I’ve no personal acquaintance with Mr. Berringer; only a general knowledge of his name.” And that, he thought, only since the day before yesterday. But he wasn’t going to stick at trifles now.

“My dear,” said Mrs. Rockbotham, “perhaps Mr. Durrant would like to see Mr. Berringer.”

“I don’t see that Mr. Durrant would gain much by that,” the doctor answered. “He’s lying perfectly still and unconscious. But if,” he went on to the young man, “I may take it that you represent a widespread concern . . . ”

“I represent,” Anthony said, “what I believe may be a very widespread concern.” It seemed to him utterly ridiculous to be talking like this, but he couldn’t burst out on these two people with his supernatural menagerie. And yet this woman ought to have realized something.

“ . . . don’t know that I wouldn’t welcome your association,” Dr. Rockbotham concluded, “We professional men have to be so careful. If you’d care to come out with me tomorrow morning — about twelve —?”

“I should be”— no, Anthony felt he couldn’t say delighted or pleased at going back to that house —“honoured.” Honoured! “What’s honour? . . . Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.” “I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if I ended by being he that died o’ Wednesday,” he thought grimly.

“Why, that will be capital,” the doctor said, “and we can see what’s best to do. You’ll excuse me, won’t you? I have to get to the surgery.”

“Don’t go, Mr. Durrant,” Mrs. Rockbotham said, as Anthony rose. “Sit down and tell me how things are with The Two Camps.”

Anthony obediently sat down, and told his hostess as much as he thought good for her about the present state of the periodical. He persevered at the same time in bringing the conversation as close as possible to the collapse of Mr. Berringer and the last monthly meeting of the Group. Mrs. Rockbotham was very willing to talk about it.

“Most disconcerting for Miss Tighe,” she said, “though I must say she behaved very charmingly about it. So good-natured. Of course no one had any idea that Dora Wilmot would go off like that.”

“Miss Wilmot is a friend of yours?” Anthony threw in casually.

“We’ve been connected in a number of things,” Mrs. Rockbotham admitted, “the social fetes every summer and this Study Group and the Conservative Committee. I remember she was a great deal of use with the correspondence at the time of the first Winter Lectures we got up to amuse the poorer people. I believe she went to some of them — a good simple soul. But this —!”

“She’s belonged to the town for a good while?” Anthony asked.

“Born here,” Mrs. Rockbotham said. “Lives in the white house at the upper corner of the market-place — you must have seen it. Just beyond Martin the bookseller’s — his assistant was one of our Group too. I suppose Mr. Berringer invited him, though of course he was hardly of the same social class as most of us.”

“Perhaps Mr. Berringer thought that the study of the world of principles —” Anthony allowed a gesture to complete his sentence.

“No doubt,” Mrs. Rockbotham answered. “Though personally I always think it better and simpler if like sticks to like. It simply distracts one’s attention if the man next you rattles his false teeth or can’t get up from his chair easily.”

“That,” Anthony said, feeling that the confession was due to truth, “is undeniably so. Perhaps it means that we haven’t got very far.”

Mrs. Rockbotham shook her head. “It’s always been so,” she said, “and I shouldn’t myself find I could concentrate nearly so well if Mr. Berringer hadn’t shaved for a week. I don’t see the smallest use in pretending that it isn’t so.”

“Didn’t this young man — what did you say his name was? — shave then?” Anthony asked.

“Richardson — yes, of course — I was only illustrating,” the lady said. “Well, if you must go —” as Anthony stood up firmly. “If you see Miss Tighe do tell her that I’m still ashamed.”

“I’m sure Miss Tighe wouldn’t wish you to be anything of the sort,” Anthony lied with brazen politeness; and, treasuring his two pieces of information, departed. It was at least a small piece of luck that the two places were near together.

From outside the bookseller’s he peered cautiously in. A nice-looking old gentleman was showing children’s books to two ladies; a tall gaunt young man was putting other books into shelves. Anthony hoped that the first gentleman was Mr. Martin and the other Mr. Richardson. He went in with a quick determined step, and straight up to the young man, who turned to meet him.

“Have you by any chance an edition of St. Ignatius’s treatise against the Gnostics?” he asked in a low clear voice.

The young assistant looked gravely back. “Not for sale, I’m afraid,” he said. “Nor, if it comes to that, the Gnostic treatises against St. Ignatius.”

“Quite,” Anthony answered. “Are you Mr. Richardson?”

“Yes,” the other said.

“Then I apologize and all that, but I should very much like to talk to you about modern Gnosticism or what appear to be its equivalents,” Anthony said rapidly. “If you don’t mind. I assure you I’m perfectly serious — though I do come from Mrs. Rockbotham. Would you, could you, spare me a little time?”

“Not here very well,” Richardson said. “But if you could come round to my rooms about half-past nine, I should be glad to discuss anything with you — anything possible.”

“So many things seem to be possible,” Anthony murmured. “At half-past nine, then? And thank you. I’m not really being silly.” He liked the other’s equable reception of the intrusion, and the reserved watchfulness of his manner.

“17 Bypath Villas,” Richardson said. “It’s not more than ten minutes away. Along that street, down the second on the right, and then it’s the third to the left. No, I’m afraid we haven’t it”— this as Mr. Martin, having disposed of his own customers, was drawing near.

“Then,” said Anthony, looking hastily round, with a vague sense of owing a return to the bookseller for the use he had made of the shop, “I’ll have that.” He picked up from a chance shelf of reduced library copies a volume with the title: Mistresse of Majesty; the lives of seven beautiful women from Agnes Sorel to Mrs. Fitzherbert. “But it’s not very up-to-date, is it?” he added rather gloomily, as he took his change.

“The morality of the House of Windsor —” Richardson said, and bowed him out.

Tucking the book under his arm in some irritation, Anthony set out for Miss Wilmot’s, and found it within a few steps. He rang the bell, and looked despairingly round to see if there were any way of disposing of Mistresses of Majesty, but the street-lamps were too bright and the passers-by too many. He was therefore still clutching it when he gave his name to the maid, and asked if Miss Wilmot could see him —“About Mr. Berringer,” he added, thinking that would be as likely as anything to gain her attention.

The maid came back with instructions to show him in at once. He entered a small, neatly furnished room, and found not only a lady whom he assumed to be Miss Wilmot sitting by the window, but also a gentleman whom he knew to be Mr. Foster standing by her. He bowed gravely to them both.

“Do sit down, Mr. Durrant,” the lady said.

Anthony obeyed, and looked rather thoughtfully at Mr. Foster, whose unexpected presence he felt might hamper his style. It was no use coming as an ignorant inquirer, nor even as a perplexed seeker; he hastily rearranged his opening.

“So very kind of you to see me, Miss Wilmot,” he began. “I expect Mr. Foster has told you what I really came to ask. I’m very anxious to find out two things as far as I can — first, what has happened to Mr. Berringer, and secondly, what happened on Wednesday night.”

He studied Miss Wilmot as he spoke, with a feeling that she was somehow different from what he had expected. But so, he thought at the same minute, was Foster. There was something about the man that was more determined — almost more brutal — than had been before; the gaze that met his was almost fierce in its . . . its arrogance — that was the only word. The woman puzzled him; she was, in the queerest manner, gathered up in her chair — her eyes were half closed — her head every now and then swayed slightly. Nothing seemed to him less like what he had supposed the “good simple” creature of Mrs. Rockbotham’s eulogy would be. But she said: “And what can we tell you, Mr. Durrant?” and he wondered if the question was, or was not, inflected with mockery.

“And why should we tell you, Mr. Durrant?” Foster said, sinking his head a little and raising his shoulders, as if the question sprang out of him with a sudden leap.

Anthony, sitting on a chair almost equidistant from both, said, “It seems more and more to be a matter of general importance.”

“Ha!” Foster said, “you think that now, do you?”

“I think I never denied it,” Anthony answered. “But I’m willing to admit that I’m much more inclined to accept your hypothesis than I was.”

“Hypothesis!” Foster deeply exclaimed, and at the same time Miss Wilmot laughed, a little laugh of quiet amusement, which made Anthony move uneasily. Whatever the joke was he hadn’t begun to see it. He suspected that he was the joke; well perhaps he was. Only he said, almost sharply: “But I believe in my own.”

“And that is?” Miss Wilmot said softly.

“I believe,” Anthony answered, looking straight at her, “that I must try myself against these things.”

“And if they are in you how will you do it?” she asked, moving her head a little. “Will you set yourself against yourself? For without us you could not be, and if you struggle against us what shall triumph? Are you quite sure that you have anything which we can’t take away? I think though you haven’t gone far in your studies, Mr. Anthony Durrant, you would be very wise to ceas — s — se.”

The last word indescribably prolonged itself in the twilight; the sound ran round the walls as if the very room were alive with sibilants. But the noise was lost in the deep voice with which Foster, momently seen more darkly as a hunched shape against the open window, said: “Very wise.”

Anthony jumped to his feet. “And what do you mean by that?” he said, staying himself from adding more by an interior warning against rhetoric or futility. So that, as if they waited for more, they did not for a moment answer him, and the three were suspended in expectation. As the pause lengthened Anthony felt a nervous anxiety grow in him, a longing to say something before anything could be said against him, to break into a braggadocio which would betray the weakness it pretended to hide. He bit his lip; his hands behind him drove the edge of Mistresses of Majesty into his back; he moved his feet farther apart to take a firmer stand. And then he met Dora Wilmot’s eyes.

They were gazing at him as if they were following the helpless scurry of some escaping creature — a rabbit perhaps, and he felt the cunning of his restraint laid open to them. She knew all about him, all his ideas, his intentions, his efforts. His defiance was no subtlety but a mere silliness; his intellect acknowledged a greater power of intellect — or rather a something which passed through intellect. He felt like a student who paused before an expert, and in sheer hopelessness began to relax. The slight movement forward which Foster made escaped him; so did the other’s slow raising of his hands till they came up almost level with the shoulders, and the elbows went back and the body crouched a little deeper — all this passed unseen. Anthony knew himself for a fool; he could do nothing; a cold shudder caught his ankles, his knees, and seized his whole body, till in that sudden trembling his hands opened and the book he carried fell with a thud to the floor. The shock of noise went through them all — Dora Wilmot leaned swiftly aside, Foster jerked himself back, and Anthony, violently released, brought his feet together and threw out his arms.

In that movement they were upon him. Quicker than he to recover, swifter than he to realize his escape, drawing more easily on the Powers they knew, they came at him while he still drew the first deep breath of release. The woman slid in one involved movement from the chair in which she had sat half-coiled, and from where she lay on the floor at his feet her arms went up, her hands clutching at his legs, and twisted themselves round his waist. At the same time the man sprang forward and upward, hands seizing Anthony’s shoulders, head thrust forward as if in design upon his throat. Anthony was aware of their attack just before it caught him, hardly in time, yet just in time, to throw himself forward to meet it. His rising forearm struck the man’s jaw with sufficient force to divert the head whose mouth champed viciously at him, but the woman’s fast hold on his body prevented him from shaking himself free of the fingers that drove into his shoulders like claws. He heaved mightily forward, and drove upward again with his forearm, but their bodies were too close for him to get any force into the blow. His foot struck, stumbled, and as he freed and lifted it, trod on a rounded shape that writhed beneath it. All round him in the room were noises of hissing and snarling, and as he staggered aside in the effort to regain his footing the hot breath of one adversary panted into his face, so that it seemed to him as if he struggled in the bottom of some loathly pit where foul creatures fought for their prey. And he was their prey, unless . . . He felt himself falling, and cried out; the tightening pressure round his body choked the cry in mid-utterance, and something slid yet higher round his chest. In a tumultuous conflict he crashed to the ground, but sideways, so that as he lay he was able to twist himself face downwards and save his throat. He felt his collar wrenched off and nails tearing at his neck; a twisting weight writhed over him from his shoulders downwards. For a second he lay defeated, then all his spirit within him cried out “No,” and thrust itself in that single syllable from his mouth. His arms at least had been freed in his fall; he pressed his hands against the floor and with a terrific effort half raised himself. The man creature, at this abandoning its tearing at his neck, came at him again from one side. Anthony put all the energy he had left into one tremendous outward sweep of his arm, rather as if he flung a great wing sideways. He felt his enemy give before it and heard the crash that marked the collapse of an unstable balance. His own balance was barely maintained, but his hand in its swift return touched the hair of the woman’s head, and caught it and fiercely pulled and wrenched till the clasping arms released their hold and for a moment his body was free. In that moment he came to his feet, and lightly as some wheeling bird turned and poised for any new attack. But his enemies lay still, their shining eyes fixed upon him, their hands scrabbling on the floor. The hissing and snarling which all this while had been in his ears ceased gradually; he became aware, as he stepped watchfully backward, of the sedate room in which that horrible struggle had gone on. He took another cautious step away, and bumped into the chair on which he had been sitting, and the jerk restored him to his ordinary self. He looked, and saw Miss Wilmot sitting, half-coiled up, on a rug, and Mr. Foster, her visitor, on one knee near to her, as if he were about to pick up a book that lay not far off. With alert eyes on them Anthony suddenly swooped and lifted it. He remembered what it was without looking.

“I was wrong,” he said aloud, and smiling, “it’s perfectly up-to-date. So sorry to be a nuisance, but I still stick to my own hypothesis. You might think it over. Goodnight, Miss Wilmot, I’ll see myself out. Goodnight, Foster, give my love to the lion.”

He backed carefully to the door, opened it, slipped through, and found the maid hovering in the little hall. She gazed at him doubtfully, and he, still rather watchfully, looked back. Then he saw her expression change into entire amazement and remembered his collar.

“O sir!” she exclaimed.

“Quite,” Anthony said. “But Ephesus, you know —”

“Ephesus, sir?” she asked, more doubtfully still, as he laid his hand on the door.

“My dear,” he said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you the reference, but your mistress will. It was where St. Paul had trouble with the wild beasts. Go and ask her. Goodnight.”

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