War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Thirteen

Conversations of the Youngman in Grey

When Sir Giles reached the station that morning he met a young man in grey just issuing from the booking-office. He stopped on the pavement and surveyed him. The stranger returned his gaze with a look of considerable interest.

“Are you running away, Sir Giles?” he said rather loudly.

“No,” Sir Giles said at once. “Are you Persimmons’s bugbear?”

“No,” the stranger answered; “yours, much more truly. I like to watch you running.”

“I am not running,” Sir Giles almost shouted. “I was going today anyhow, and I have told Persimmons a thousand times I won’t be dragged into his Boxing Day glee parties. And, anyhow, he’s getting a bore . . . Haven’t I met you before?”

“Once or twice,” the stranger said. “We shall meet again, no doubt. I like to watch your mind working. So long as you don’t make yourself too much of a nuisance.”

Sir Giles’s overpowering curiosity, freed from other desires, thrust him forward. “And who are you?”

“I will tell you, if you like,” the stranger said, smiling, “for at least you are really curious. I am Prester John, I am the Graal and the Keeper of the Graal. All enchantment has been stolen from me, and to me the Vessel itself shall return.”

Sir Giles stepped back. “Nonsense!” he said. “Prester John, indeed! However, it’s not my affair. You don’t seem to have kept the Graal very well.” He stepped towards the station, but paused as he heard the stranger’s voice behind him.

“This is the second time we have met, Giles Tumulty,” it said. “I warn you that one day when you meet me you shall find me too like yourself to please you. It is a joyous thing to study the movements of men as you study insects under a stone, but you shall run a weary race when I and the heavens watch you and laugh at you and tease you to go a way that you would not. Then you shall scrabble in the universe as an ant against the smoothness of the inner side of the Graal, and none shall pick you out or deliver you for ever. There is a place in the pit where I shall be found, but there is no place for you who do not enter the pit, though you thrust others in.”

During the high tones that had been used at the beginning of their conversation Sir Giles had glanced once or twice at a porter who was lounging near. But the porter had not seemed to take any notice, and even now, while this warning sounded through the bright morning air, he still leant idly against the station wall. Sir Giles, while the stranger was still speaking, went up to him. “What platform for the London train?” he said sharply, and the porter answered at once, “Over the bridge, sir.” Sir Giles looked at him hard, but there was no suggestion of anything unusual on the man’s face, though the stern voice still rang on. Tumulty shivered a little, and thought to himself, “I must be imagining it; Persimmons is wrecking my nerve.” An ant scrabbling in an empty chalice — a foul idea! He looked back as he entered the booking-office; the stranger was strolling away down the station entrance.

Prester John, if it was he indeed, passed on down the country roads till he came near the Rectory, having timed himself so well that he met Mr. Batesby emerging. The clergyman recognized at once his companion of the day before, and greeted him amiably. “Still staying here?” he said. “Well, you couldn’t do better. ‘Through pleasures and palaces though we may roam, there’s no place like home.’ Though, strictly speaking, I expect Fardles isn’t your home. But a church is our home everywhere — in England, of course I mean. I suppose you don’t find the churches abroad really homely.”

“It depends,” the young man said, “on one’s idea of a home. Not like an English home perhaps.”

“No,” Mr. Batesby said, “they haven’t, I gather, a proper sense of the family. Didn’t one of the poets say that Heaven lies about us in our family? And where else, indeed?”

“What then,” the stranger asked, “do you mean by the Kingdom of Heaven?”

“Well, we have to understand,” Mr. Batesby said. As Ludding had increased in brutality, and Gregory in hatred, so, in conversation with the stranger, Mr. Batesby’s superior protectiveness seemed to increase; he became more than ever a guide and guard to his fellows, and the Teaching Church seemed to walk, a little nervously and dragging its feet, in the dust behind him. “We have to understand. Of course, some take it to mean the Church — but that’s very narrow. I tell my young people in confirmation classes the Kingdom of Heaven is all good men — and women, of course . . . and women. Just that. Simple perhaps, but helpful.”

“And good men,” the other said, “are —?”

“Oh, well, good men, one knows good men,” Mr. Batesby said. “By their fruits, you know. They do not kill. They do not commit adultery. They are just kind and honest and thrifty and hard-working, and so on. Good — after all, one feels goodness.”

“The Kingdom of Heaven is to be felt among the honest and industrious?” the stranger asked. “And yet it’s true. The Church is indeed marvellously protected from error.”

“Yes,” Mr. Batesby agreed. “The Faith once delivered. We can’t go wrong if we stick to the old paths. What was good enough for St. Paul is good enough for me.”

“When he fell to the ground beyond Damascus and was blinded?” the stranger asked. “Or when he persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem? Or when he taught them in Macedonia?”

“Ah, it was the same Paul all the time,” Mr. Batesby rather triumphantly answered. “Just as it’s the same me. I can grow older, but I don’t change.”

“So that when the Son of Man cometh He shall find faith upon the earth? It was beyond His expectation,” the stranger said.

“The five righteous in Sodom,” Mr. Batesby reminded him.

“There were not five righteous in Sodom,” the young man said. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! . . . ”

“Well, not strictly perhaps,” Mr. Batesby allowed, a little hurt, but recovering himself. “But a parable has to be applied, hasn’t it? We mustn’t take it too literally, too much in the foot of the letter, as the French so wittily say. More witty than moral the French, I’m afraid.”

So conversing, they walked on till they came to the village, where, at the inn door, Inspector Colquhoun was regarding it pensively. He looked unrecognizingly at them as they approached. But the stranger stopped and smiled at him in greeting.

“Why, inspector,” he said, “what are you doing down here?”

The inspector looked at him critically. “I’ve no doubt it’s your business,” he said, “but I’m quite sure it’s mine. I don’t seem to remember your face.”

“Oh, many a time!” the stranger said lightly; “but I won’t ask you any questions. Mr. Batesby . . . do you know Inspector Colquhoun? Inspector, this is Mr. Batesby, who is looking after the parish for the time being.”

The two others murmured inaudibly, and the stranger went on, “You ought to have a kindness for one another, for on you two the universe reposes. Movement and stability, aspiration and order . . . ”

“Yes,” Mr. Batesby broke in, “I’ve often thought something like that. In fact, I remember once in one of my sermons I said that the police were as necessary for the Ten Commandments as the Church was. More so nowadays, when there’s so little respect for the law.”

“There never was much that I could ever hear of,” the inspector said, willing to spend a quarter of an hour chatting to the local clergyman. “No, I don’t think things are much worse.”

“No, not in one way,” Mr. Batesby said. “Man had fallen just as far twenty or thirty years ago as he has today. But the war made a great difference. Men nowadays don’t seem so willing to be taught.”

“Ah, there you have me, sir,” the inspector answered. “I don’t have much to do with teaching them, only with those who won’t be taught. And I’ve seen some of them look pretty white,” he added viciously.

“Ah, a guilty conscience,” Mr. Batesby said. “Yes — guilt makes the heavy head to bend, the saddened heart to sob, and happy they who ere their end can feel remorseful throb. Love castest out perfect fear. Nothing is sadder, I think, than to see a man or woman afraid.”

“It doesn’t do to trust to it.” The inspector shook his head. “It may drive them almost silly any moment, and make them dangerous. I’ve known a little whipper-snapper fairly gouge a policeman’s eyes out.”

“Really?” Mr. Batesby said. “Dear me, how sad! I don’t think I know what fear is — temperamentally. Of course, an accident . . . ”

“You have never been afraid of anyone?” the stranger said, his voice floating through the air as if issuing from it.

“Yes,” the inspector said, “and pretty often.”

“Not, I think, afraid of anyone,” Mr. Batesby said, mysteriously accentuating the preposition. “Of course, every priest has unpleasant experiences. Once, I remember, I was making a call on a farmer and a pig got into the room, and we couldn’t get it to go away. And there are callers.”

“Callers are the devil — I mean, the devil of a nuisance,” the inspector remarked.

“You see, you can get rid of them,” the clergyman said. “But we have to be patient. ‘Offend not one of these little ones, lest a millstone is hanged about his neck.’ Patience, sympathy, help. A word in season bringeth forth his fruit gladly.”

The air stirred about him to the question. “And do these cause you fear?”

“Oh, not fear! by no means fear!” Mr. Batesby said. “Though, of course, sometimes one has to be firm. To pull them together. To try and give them a backbone. I have known some poor specimens. I remember meeting one not far from here. He looked almost sick and yellow, and I did what I could to hearten him up.”

“Why was he looking so bad?” the inspector asked.

“Well, it was a funny story,” Mr. Batesby said, looking meditatively through the stranger, who was leaning against the inn wall, “and I didn’t quite understand it all. Of course, I saw what was wrong with him at once. Hysteria. I was very firm with him. I said, ‘Get a hold on yourself.’ He’d been talking to a Wesleyan.”

Mr. Batesby paused long enough for the inspector to say, with a slight frown, “I’m almost a Wesleyan myself,” gave him a pleasant smile as if he had been waiting for this, and went on: “Quite, quite, and very fine preachers many of them are. But a little unbalanced sometimes — emotional, you know. Too much emotion doesn’t do, does it? Like poetry and all that, not stern enough. Thought, intelligence, brain — that’s what helps. Well, this man had been saved — he called it saved, and there he was as nervous as could be.”

“What was he nervous about if he’d been saved?” the inspector asked idly.

Mr. Batesby smiled again. “It seems funny to say it in cold blood,” he said, “but, do you know, he was quite sure he was going to be killed? He didn’t know how, he didn’t know who, he didn’t know when. He’d just been saved at a Wesleyan mission hall and he was going to be killed by the devil. So I heartened him up.”

The inspector had come together with a jerk; the young stranger was less energetic and less observable than the flowers in the inn garden behind him.

“Who was this man?” the inspector said. “Did you hear any more of him?”

“Nothing much,” Mr. Batesby said. “I rather gathered that he’d been employed somewhere near here and was going to Canada, but he wasn’t very clear. It was over in my own church that I actually met him, not at Fardles. So I lent him a little book — two, as a matter of fact. One was called Present Helps and one was The Sand and the Rock. I must have given away hundreds of them. He sent them back to me a week or two after from London.”

“Did he write a letter with them?” the inspector asked.

“Well, he did, in fact,” Mr. Batesby said. “A touching little note — very touching. It shows how ideas get hold of people. I believe I’ve got it somewhere.” He felt in his pocket, and from a number of papers extracted a folded letter. “Here we are,” he said.

REVEREND SIR— I return you your books, which you very kindly lent me. I’ve no doubt they’re quite right, but they don’t seem to mean the precious Blood. They don’t help me when the devil comes. He’ll kill me one day, but my blessed Saviour will have me then, I know, but I daren’t think of it. I hope he won’t hurt me much. It’s quite right, I’m not grumbling. I’ve asked for it all. And Jesus will save me at last.

Thank you for the books, which I return herewith. I’ve not read them both all as I’m rather worried. I am,

Reverend Sir,

Yours faithfully,

JAMES MONTGOMERY PATTISON.

“A nice letter,” Mr. Batesby said. “But of course, the devil —!”

“Excuse me, sir,” the inspector said, “but is there any address on that letter?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Batesby, slightly surprised; “227 Thobblehurst Road, Victoria, S.W.”

“Thank you, sir; and the date?”

“May 27th,” Mr. Batesby said, staring.

“Humph,” the inspector said. “And to think it’s within two doors of my own house! A small man, you said, sir?”

“Rather small,” Mr. Batesby said. “Oh, decidedly rather small. Rather unintelligent-looking, you know. But did you know him, then?”

“I think I met him once or twice,” the inspector said. “If I should want to ask you any more questions, shall you be here?”

“I shall be at my own parish, over there: Ridings, at the Vicarage. The Duke’s house is in it you know, in the parish — Ridings Castle. I’m sorry he’s a Papist, though in a sense he was born blind.”

“Humph,” the inspector said again. “Well, I must get off. Good-bye, Sir.” He fled into the inn.

Against the grey wall Mr. Batesby saw the young stranger’s grey figure. “How silent you are,” he said. “Thinking, yes, thinking no doubt.”

“I was thinking that even a sparrow has its ghost,” the other said, “and that all things work together.”

“For good,” Mr. Batesby concluded.

“For God,” the other substituted, and moved away.

In Ridings Castle that afternoon the Duke and Kenneth endeavoured to talk poetry. But both of them were distracted — the Duke by the memory of the Graal and Kenneth by the thought of Barbara; and conversation after conversation either dropped or led them wanderingly back to these subjects. Never, Kenneth thought, had he supposed that so much of English literature was occupied either with the Graal or with madness. Before them at every turn moved the Arthurian chivalry or Tom o’ Bedlam. And at last, about tea-time, they both seemed to give up the attempt and fell into a silence, which lasted until Kenneth said rather hesitatingly, “I should like to know how Barbara’s getting along.”

The Duke shrugged. “Naturally,” he said, “but I don’t see how you can. You can hardly call at Cully and ask Persimmons.”

“What I should like to do would be to run across Rackstraw privately,” Kenneth answered. “I’ve half a mind just to go and hang round a little while on the chance. He might come out for a walk, mightn’t he?”

“He might,” the Duke said. “I shouldn’t, myself, leave my wife, if I had one, alone with Mr. Gregory. But your friend seems to like him.”

“I think you’re a little unfair,” Mornington said. “After all, Lionel hasn’t known what we have. He doesn’t even know that I’ve been kicked out of the office.”

The Duke, with an effort, said, “I expect I am. But when I think of his getting his foul paws on the Cup, I— I could murder your Archdeacon.”

There was another silence, then he went on: “And even now I’m not satisfied. After all, what exactly did this doctor do? From what I could see, he hadn’t reached her when she fainted.”

Kenneth looked up swiftly. “That’s what I’ve been wondering about,” he said. “Only it’s easy to be deceived. But I was on the stairs above her, and he seemed to be a couple of yards off when she — she didn’t exactly faint, at least it was more like sinking down quite quietly first. I suppose she fainted afterwards.”

“Well, then,” the Duke cried, “will you tell me why we let the Archdeacon give them the Graal?”

“I suppose we’d promised it to him if he would take on the case,” Kenneth said doubtfully, “and he’d agreed to.”

“But that is exactly what we hadn’t,” the Duke cried again, knocking a pile of Elizabethan dramatists off the table as he turned, “exactly. I remember perfectly well. The Archdeacon was just going to when we heard her screaming. But he wasn’t speaking to the doctor, he was talking to your friend. And even so, he hadn’t said more than that he wouldn’t have delayed so long if— something or other.”

“By God, that’s right,” Kenneth said staring. “But, if it hadn’t been promised him and if he didn’t help Barbara, what —?”

“Precisely,” the Duke said. “What’s he doing with it?”

There was another short pause.

“In another sense,” Kenneth said, “what’s he doing with it? Is he with Persimmons? Is it all a put-up job? Or will Persimmons and he fight for it? No, that’s not likely. Then it must have been all arranged.”

“Well, what about getting it back?” the Duke asked.

“Yes,” Kenneth said doubtfully. “More easily said than done, don’t you think? We don’t even know where this doctor comes from or went to. Unless —” He hesitated.

“Unless?” the Duke asked.

“Unless — when the Chief Constable was talking to Persimmons on Monday — the day before yesterday, by heaven! — I couldn’t help hearing something of what they said, and Gregory gave him an address. I remembered it because it was so absurd — 3 Lord Mayor’s Street, in London somewhere. But I don’t quite know what we can do about it. We can’t go there and just ask for it.”

“Can’t we?” the Duke said. “Can’t we, indeed? We can go and see what sort of place it is, and whether this Doctor Manasseh hangs out there. And, if he does, we can tell him It belongs to us, and if he makes any objection we can take It. We — at least the Archdeacon — did it before.”

“He’ll bring the police in,” Kenneth demurred. “He must — this time.”

“And if he does?” the Duke asked. “Let me get the Graal in my hands for time enough to get it over to Thwaites or someone, and It shall be in Rome before the police can guess what’s happening. And there are no extradition treaties yet with the Vatican.”

“I suppose there aren’t,” Kenneth said, arrested by this idea. “What a frightful joke! But what about us?”

“We should be sent to prison for burglary perhaps —‘first offenders’ and all that sort of thing. And the Bishops ought to rally — and yours too. I should leave a statement for the Cardinal — Archbishop of Westminster. My father is supposed to have had something to do? indirectly — with getting him the Hat.”

“But it probably won’t be there!” Kenneth objected again.

“Then we’re no worse off; they won’t distrust us more, and they certainly won’t call in the police,” the Duke answered. “Of course, if it’s still at Cully . . . Perhaps your friend might know. Look here, Mornington, let’s go over and see if we can drop across him.” He jumped up and went to the door.

Rather to relieve their irritation than because they wanted to, they set out to walk, after the Duke had flung abroad a general warning that he might have to go to London that night, and came at last to where a private road entered the grounds of Cully and, a little farther on, passed near the cottage of the Rackstraws. Nothing, as the Duke pointed out, was more natural than that Kenneth should wish to see his friend or should hesitate to call at the front doors of Cully. But, as they passed the private road, they saw Lionel and Barbara in the lane before them.

“Hallo,” Kenneth said, “this is surprising and delightful. I didn’t expect you to be rambling round like this. Is all well again?”

“I’m rather tired and rather lazy,” Barbara said happily. “But otherwise I’m very comfortable, thank you.”

“The devil you are!” Kenneth said, staring at her, with a smile. “I expected you to be in bed at least.”

“I seem to have slept on cushions in Mr. Persimmons’s hall till about four, but I woke up feeling quite normal,” Barbara answered. “But what a business!” She spoke lightly, but her face grew whiter as she referred to it.

“It’s all over, anyhow,” Lionel said hastily. “I shall screw another’s week’s holiday out of Stephen, Kenneth, and we’ll go to the seaside or something for a few days — without Adrian.”

“What’s going to happen to Adrian?” Kenneth asked.

“He’s going to stop here,” Lionel answered. “He’s got very fond of one of the maids here, and he adores Gregory, and his motors and telephones and Chinese masks and things.”

“And Gregory’s willing to have him?” Kenneth asked.

“Loves him, he says,” Lionel answered. “Good luck to them both. I don’t want another twenty-four hours like the last. Of course, we must see this doctor fellow again first; that will be the day after tomorrow.”

“Do you really think it was he that helped you, Babs?” Kenneth said.

Lionel looked at his wife. “Well, Babs doesn’t know,” he said, “not being in a state then to notice such things. And I don’t know. If it wasn’t him, what was it? And yet he was some way off and didn’t seem to have a chance to do anything.”

“I can’t tell you anything,” Barbara said gravely, “for I don’t know. There was nothing but a darkness of the most dreadful pressure — and the edge of the pit I was falling towards. Nothing could stop me and just as I fell — no, it’s all right, Lionel; I don’t mind this part — just as I fell I was entirely all right. I fell into safety. I was just quite happy. I can’t tell you — it was just being swallowed up by peace. And like — I don’t know — like recognizing someone; when one says, ‘Oh, joy! there’s — someone or other. I knew him at once.’”

The three young men considered her gravely. After a minute she went on: “So that now to look back on it’s like having had a tooth out, unpleasant but small. I don’t mind talking of it. But when I was there it seemed as if things so wicked I could never have thought of them had got their claws into me.”

You could never have thought of them!” Lionel scoffed tenderly.

She smiled at him, and then, as she leaned against the gate of the Cully grounds she unconsciously stretched her arms out along the top bar on either side. So, her feet close together, her palms turned upward, her face towards the evening sky, she seemed to hang remote, till Kenneth said sharply, “Don’t, Babs; you look as if you were crucified.”

She brought her eyes down to meet his without otherwise moving, then, looking past him, she came together suddenly, took a step forward, and cried out: “Oh, joy! it’s —” and stopped, laughing and embarrassed.

Her companions looked round in surprise. Behind them, as they stood clustered by the gate, stood an ordinary looking young man smiling recognition at Barbara. She blushed as she shook hands, but, with her usual swiftness, raced into an apology. “It’s extraordinarily silly, but I can’t remember your name. But I’m so pleased you’re here. Do forgive me and tell me.”

“My name is John,” the other said, “though I don’t think you ever heard it. But we’ve certainly met several times.”

“I know, I know,” Barbara said. “Stop a moment and I shall remember. It was . . . it was just before I was married, surely . . . No, since then, too. Somewhere only the other day. How stupid! Lionel, can’t you help?” She turned a face crimson with surprise, delight, and shame to her husband.

But Lionel shook his head firmly. “I do seem to have seen you before,” he said to the stranger, “but I haven’t the ghost of a notion where.”

“It really doesn’t matter,” the other said. “To be remembered is the chief thing. I think I have met these other gentlemen too.”

“It’s too absurd,” Kenneth said, laughing outright, “but for a minute when I saw you I thought you were a priest I’d seen somewhere. But I couldn’t at all fix where, so I suppose I haven’t.”

“It was certainly in church somewhere,” the stranger said, and glanced at the Duke.

“At Oriel,” the Duke said, “in-whose rooms was it? But not lately, I think.”

“Not so very much lately,” answered the other. “But you haven’t quite forgotten me, I’m glad to see.”

“I don’t understand it at all,” Barbara, still flushed and excited, answered. “I feel as if it were only today. You weren’t at . . . the house, were you?” she asked doubtfully.

The stranger smiled back. “I know Mr. Persimmons, and he will know me better soon. But don’t worry. How’s Adrian?”

“Very well, thank you,” Lionel said; and rather hesitatingly looked at Barbara. “Babs, don’t you think you ought to get back? My wife’s not been very well,” he added to the stranger, “and I don’t want her to get at all excited. You understand, I’m certain.”

The young man smiled again. “I understand very well indeed,” he answered. “But there is no more danger for her here. Believe certainly that this universe also carries its salvation in its heart.” He looked at Barbara. “We have met in places that shall not easily be forgotten,” he said, “before you were married, and since, and today also. Sleep securely to-night, the gates of hell have no more power over you. And you, my lord Duke, because you have loved the thing that is mine, this also shall save you in the end. Only remember that in your heart as well as your house you shall keep vigil and prayer till the Master of the Graal shall come.” He came a step nearer to Kenneth. “But for you I have no message,” he said, “except the message of the Graal ‘Surely I come quickly. To-night thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.’”

He moved backward, and, as they involuntarily glanced at each other, seemed to step aside, so that no one was quite certain which way he had gone. Or, rather, Lionel and the Duke were not certain. Barbara was gazing at Kenneth with rapt eyes. “It was he that was at the edge of the pit today,” she breathed. “To-night! O Kenneth!”

Kenneth stood silent for a minute or two, then he said only: “Well, good night, Babs,” as she gave him both her hands. “Good night, Lionel: I should certainly screw an extra week out of Stephen.” He laid his hand on the Duke’s arm. “Shall we go straight on to London?” he asked.

The evening had grown darker before the Archdeacon, wandering alone in his garden, saw at the gate the figure of the priest-king. He had been standing still for a moment looking out towards the road, and to his absent eyes it seemed almost as if the form had shaped itself from the sky and the fields and road about it. He came down to it and paused, and words sounded in his mind, but whether from without or from within he no more knew than whether this presence had moved along the road or come forth from the universe which it expressed. “‘The time is at hand,’” it said; “‘I will keep the passover with my disciples.’”

“Ah, fair sweet lord, Thou knowest,” he answered aloud.

“I am a messenger only,” the voice, if voice it were, uttered, “but I am the precursor of the things that are to be. I am John and I am Galahad and I am Mary; I am the Bearer of the Holy One, the Graal, and the keeper of the Graal. I have kept it always, whether I dwelt in the remote places of the world and kings rode after me or whether I removed to the farther parts of man’s mind. All magic and all holiness is through me, and though men stole the Graal from me ages since I have been with it for ever. Brother and friend, the night of His coming is at hand.”

“I have watched many nights,” the Archdeacon answered, “and behold His mercy endureth for ever.”

“Also I have watched with you,” the voice said, “yet not I, but He that sent me. You shall watch yet through a deeper night, and after that I will come to this place on the second morning from now, and I will begin the mysteries of my Lord, and thereafter He shall do what He will, and you shall see the end of these things. Only be strong and of a good courage.”

The form was gone. The Archdeacon looked out over the countryside, and his lips moved in their accustomed psalm.

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