War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Three

The Archdeacon in the City

The inquest was held on the Monday, with the formal result of a verdict of “Murder by a person or persons unknown,” and the psychological result of emphasizing the states of mind of the three chief sufferers within themselves. The world certified itself as being, to Lionel more fantastic, to Mornington more despicable, to Stephen Persimmons more harassing. To the young girl who lived in the waiting-room and was interrogated by the coroner, it became, on the contrary, more exciting and delightful than ever; although she had no information to give — having, on her own account, been engaged all the while so closely indexing letter-books that she had not observed anyone enter or depart by the passage at the side of her office.

On the Tuesday, however, being, perhaps naturally, more watchful, she remarked towards the end of the day, three, or rather four, visitors. The offices shut at six, and about half-past four the elder Mr. Persimmons, giving her an amiable smile, passed heavily along the corridor and up to his son’s room. At about a quarter past five Barbara Rackstraw, with Adrian, shone in the entrance — as she did normally some three or four times a year — and also disappeared up the stairs. And somewhere between the two a polite, chubby, and gaitered clergyman hovered at the door of the waiting-room and asked her tentatively if Mr. Mornington were in. Him she committed to the care of a passing office-boy, and returned to her indexing.

Gregory Persimmons, a little to his son’s surprise and greatly to his relief, appeared to have shaken off the mood of tantalizing amusement which had possessed him on the previous Friday. He discussed various financial points in the balance sheet as if he were concerned only with ordinary business concerns. He congratulated his son on the result of the inquest as likely to close the whole matter except in what he thought the unlikely result of the police discovering the murderer; and when he brought up the subject of Intensive Mastery he did it with no suggestion that anything but the most normal hesitation had ever held Stephen back from enthusiastic acceptance. In the sudden relief from mental neuralgia thus granted him, Stephen found himself promising to have the book out before Christmas — it was then early summer — and even going so far as to promise estimates during the next week and discuss the price at which it might reasonably appear. Towards the end of an hour’s conversation Gregory said, “By the way, I saw Tumulty yesterday, and he asked me to make sure that he was in time to cut a paragraph out of his book. He sent Rackstraw a postcard, but perhaps I might just make sure it got here all right. May I go along, Stephen?”

“Do,” Stephen said. “I’ll sign these letters and be ready by the time you’re back.” And, as his father went out with a nod, he thought to himself: “He couldn’t possibly want to go into that office again if he’d really killed a man there. It’s just his way of pulling my leg. Rather hellish, but I suppose it doesn’t seem so to him.”

Lionel, tormented with a more profound and widely spread neuralgia than his employer’s, had by pressure of work been prevented from dwelling on it that day. Soon after his arrival Mornington had broken into the office to ask if he could have a set of proofs of Sir Giles Tumulty’s book on Vessels of Folklore.

“I’ve got an Archdeacon coming to see me,” he said —“don’t bow — and an Archdeacon ought to be interested in folklore, don’t you think? I always used to feel that Archdeacons were a kind of surviving folklore themselves-they seem preChristian and almost prehistoric: a lingering and bi-sexual tradition. Besides, publicity, you know. Don’t Archdeacons charge? ‘Charge, Archdeacons, charge! On, Castra Parvulorum, on! were the last words of Mornington.”

“I wish they were!” Lionel said. “There are the proofs, on that shelf: take them and go! take them all.”

“I don’t want them all. Business, business. We can’t have murders and Bank Holidays every day.”

He routed out the proofs and departed; and when by the afternoon post an almost indecipherable postcard from Sir Giles asked for the removal of a short paragraph on page 218, Lionel did not think of making the alteration on the borrowed set. He marked the paragraph for deletion on the proofs he was about to return for Press, cursing Sir Giles a little for the correction — which, however, as it came at the end of a whole division of the book, would cause no serious inconvenience — and much more for his handwriting. A sentence beginning — he at last made out — “It has been suggested to me” immediately became totally illegible, and only recovered meaning towards the end, where the figures 218 rode like a monumental Pharaoh over the diminutive abbreviations which surrounded it. But the instruction was comprehensible, if the reason for it was not, and Lionel dispatched the proofs to the printer.

When, later on, the Archdeacon arrived, Mornington greeted him with real and false warmth mingled. He liked the clergyman, but he disliked manuscripts, and a manuscript on the League of Nations promised him some hours’ boredom. For, in spite of his disclaimer, he knew he would have to skim the book at least, before he obtained further opinions, and the League of Nations lay almost in the nadir of all the despicable things in the world. It seemed to him so entire and immense a contradiction of aristocracy that it drove him into a positive hunger for mental authority imposed by force. He desired to see Plato and his like ruling with power, and remembered with longing the fierce inquisition of the Laws. However, he welcomed the Archdeacon without showing this, and settled down to chat about the book.

“Good evening, Mr. Archdeacon,” he said rapidly, suddenly remembering that he didn’t know the other’s name, and at the same moment that it would no doubt be on the manuscript and that he would look at it immediately. “Good of you to come. Come in and sit down.”

The Archdeacon, with an agreeable smile, complied, and, as he laid the parcel on the desk, said: “I feel a little remorseful now, Mr. Mornington. Or I should if I didn’t realize that this is your business.”

“That,” Mornington said, laughing, “is a clear, cool, lucid, diabolical way of looking at it. If you could manage to feel a little remorse I should feel almost tender — an unusual feeling towards a manuscript.”

“The relation between an author and a publisher”, the Archdeacon remarked, “always seems to me to partake a little of the nature of a duel, an abstract, impersonal duel. There is no feeling about it.”

“Oh, isn’t there?” Mornington interjected. “Ask Persimmons; ask our authors.”

“Is there?” the Archdeacon asked. “You astonish me.” He looked at the parcel, of which he still held the string. “Do you know,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t think I have any feeling particularly about it. Whether you publish it or not, whether anyone publishes it or not, doesn’t matter much. I think it might matter if I made no attempt to get it published, for I honestly think the ideas are sound. But with that very small necessary activity my responsibility ends.”

“You take it very placidly,” Mornington answered, smiling. “Most of our authors feel they have written the most important book of the century.”

“Ah, don’t misunderstand me,” the Archdeacon said. “I might think that myself — I don’t, but I might. It wouldn’t make any difference to my attitude towards it. No book of ideas can matter so supremely as that. ‘An infant crying in the night,’ you know. What else was Aristotle?”

“Well, it makes it much pleasanter for us,” Mornington said again. “I gather it’s all one to you whether we take it or leave it?”

“Entirely,” the Archdeacon answered, and pushed the bundle towards him. “I should, inevitably, be interested in your reasons so far as they bear stating.”

“With this detachment,” the other answered, undoing the parcel, “I wonder you make any reservation. Could any abominable reason shatter such a celestial calm?”

The Archdeacon twiddled his thumbs. “Man is weak,” he said sincerely, “and I indeed am the chief of sinners. But I also am in the hands of God, and what can it matter how foolish my own words are or how truly I am told of them? Pooh, Mr. Mornington, you must have a very conceited set of authors.”

“Talking about authors,” Mornington went on, “I thought you might be interested in looking at the proofs of this book we’ve got in hand.” And he passed over Sir Giles’s Sacred Vessels.

The Archdeacon took them. “It’s good work, is it?” he asked.

“I haven’t had time to read it,” the other said, “But there’s one article on the Graal that ought to attract you.” He glanced sideways at the first page of the MS., and read “Christianity and the League of Nations, by Julian Davenant, Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum.” “Well, thank God I know his name now,” he reflected.

Meanwhile the third visitor, with her small companion, had penetrated to Lionel’s room. They had come to the City to buy Adrian a birthday present, and, having succeeded, had gone on according to plan to the office. This arrangement — as such arrangements by such people tend to be-had been made two or three weeks earlier, and the crisis of the previous Friday had made Lionel only the more anxious to see if Barbara’s presence would in any way cleanse the room from the slime that seemed still to carpet it. He had been a little doubtful whether she herself would bear the neighbourhood, but, either because in effect the murder had meant little to her or because she guessed something of her husband’s feelings, she had made no difficulty, had indeed assumed that the visit was still to be paid. Adrian’s persistent interest in the date-stamp presented itself for those few minutes to Lionel as a solid reality amid the fantasies his mind made haste to induce. But Barbara’s own presence was too much in the nature of a defiance to make him entirely happy. He kissed her as she sat on his table, with a sense of almost heroic challenge; neither he nor she were ignorant, and their ignoring of the subject was a too clear simulation of the ignorance they did not possess. But Adrian’s ignorance was something positive. Lionel felt that a dead body beneath the desk would have been to this small and intent being something not so much unpleasant as dull and unnecessary; it might have got in the way of the movements of his body, but not of his mind. This was what he needed; his unsteady thought needed weighting, but with what, he asked himself, of all the shadows of obscenity that moved through the place of shadows which was the world — with which of all these could he weight it? From date-stamp to waste-paper basket, from basket to files, from files to telephone Adrian pursued his investigations; and Lionel was on the point of giving an exhibition of telephoning by ringing up Mornington, when the door opened and Gregory Persimmons appeared.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, stopping on the threshold, “I really beg your pardon, Rackstraw.”

“Come in, sir,” Lionel said, getting up. “It’s only my wife.”

“I’ve met Mrs. Rackstraw before,” Persimmons said, shaking hands. “But not, I think, this young man.” He moved slowly in Adrian’s direction.

“Adrian,” Barbara said, “come and shake hands.”

The child politely obeyed, as Persimmons, dropping on one knee, welcomed him with a grave and detached courtesy equal to his own. But when he stood up again he kept his eyes fixed on Adrian, even while saying to Barbara, “What a delightful child!”

“He is rather a pet,” Barbara murmured. “But, of course, an awful nuisance.”

“They always are,” Persimmons said. “But they have their compensations. I’ve always been glad I had a son. Training them is a wonderful experience.”

“Adrian trains himself, I’m afraid,” Barbara answered, a little embarrassed. “But we shall certainly have to begin to teach him soon.”

“Yes,” Gregory said, his eyes still on Adrian. “It’s a dreadful business, teaching them what’s wrong. It has to be done all the same, and he’s too fine a child to waste. I beg your pardon again — but I do think children are so wonderful, and when one meets the grown-ups one feels they’ve so often been wasted.” He smiled at Barbara. “Look at your husband; look at me!” he said. “We were babies once.”

“Well,” Barbara said, smiling back, “I wouldn’t say that Lionel had been altogether wasted. Nor you, Mr. Persimmons.”

He bowed a little, but shook his head, then turned to Lionel. “All I came for, Rackstraw,” he said, “was to say that I saw Tumulty yesterday, and he was rather anxious whether you could read a postcard he sent you about his book.”

“Only just,” Lionel answered, “but I managed. He wanted a paragraph knocked out.”

“And you got it in time to make the correction?” Gregory asked again.

“Behold the proof,” Lionel said, “in the proof. It goes off to-night.” He held the sheet out to the other man, who took it with a word of thanks and glanced at the red-ink line. “That’s it,” he said, “the last paragraph on page 218.” He stood for a moment reading it through.

In the room across the corridor the Archdeacon turned over page 217 and read on.

“It seems probable therefore,” the book ran, “if we consider these evidences, and the hypothetical scheme which has been adduced, not altogether unreasonably, to account for the facts which we have — a scheme which may be destroyed in the future by discovery of some further fact, but till then may not unjustifiably be considered to hold the field — it seems probable that the reputed Graal may be so far definitely traced and its wanderings followed as to permit us to say that it rests at present in the parish church of Fardles.”

“Dear me!” the Archdeacon said; and, “Yes, that was the paragraph,” said Mr. Gregory Persimmons; and for a moment there was silence in both offices.

The Archdeacon was considering that he had, in fact, never been able to find out anything about a certain rarely used chalice at Fardles. A year or two before the decease of the last Vicar a very much more important person in the neighbourhood had died — Sir John Horatio Sykes–Martindale, K.V.O., D.S.O., and various other things. In memory of the staunch churchmanship of this great and good man, his widow had presented a complete set of altar fittings and altar plate to the parish church, which was then doing its best with antique but uncorresponding paten and chalice. These were discarded in favour of the new gift, and when the Archdeacon succeeded to the rectory and archdeaconry he followed his predecessor’s custom. He had at different times examined the old chalice carefully, and had shown it to some of his friends, but he had had no reason to make any special investigation, nor indeed would it have been easy to do so. The new suggestion, however, gave it a fresh interest. He was about to call Mornington’s attention to the paragraph, then he changed his mind. There would be plenty of time when the book was out: lots of people — far too many — would hear about it then, and he might have to deal with a very complicated situation. So many people, he reflected, put an altogether undue importance on these exterior and material things. The Archbishop might write? and Archaeological Societies — and perhaps Psychical Research people: one never knew. Better keep quiet and consider.

“I should like”, he said aloud, “to have a copy of this book when it comes out. Could you have one sent to me, Mr. Mornington?”

“Oh, but I didn’t show it to you for that reason,” Mornington answered. “I only thought it might amuse you.”

“It interests me very deeply,” the Archdeacon agreed. “In one sense, of course, the Graal is unimportant — it is a symbol less near Reality now than any chalice of consecrated wine. But it is conceivable that the Graal absorbed, as material things will, something of the high intensity of the moment when it was used, and of its adventures through the centuries. In that sense I should be glad, and even eager,” he added precisely, “to study its history.”

“Well, as you like,” Mornington answered. “So long as I’m not luring or bullying you into putting money into poor dear Persimmons’s pocket.”

“No one less, I assure you,” the Archdeacon said, as he got up to go. “Besides, why should one let oneself be lured or bullied?”

“Especially by a publisher’s clerk,” Mornington added, smiling. “Well, we’ll write to you as soon as possible, Mr. Davenant. In about forty days, I should think. It would be Lent to most authors, but I gather it won’t be more than the usual Sundays after Trinity to you.”

The Archdeacon shook his head gravely. “One is very weak, Mr. Mornington,” he said. “While I would do good, and so on, you know. I shall wonder what will happen, although it’s silly, of course, very silly. Good-bye and thank you.”

Mornington opened the door for him and followed him out into the corridor. As they went along it they saw a group, consisting of Gregory and the Rackstraws outside Stephen Persimmons’s room at the top of the stairs, and heard Gregory say to Barbara, “Yes, Mrs. Rackstraw, I’m sure that’s the best way. You can’t teach them what to want and go for because you don’t know their minds. But you can teach them what not to do with just a few simple rules about what’s wrong. Be afraid to do wrong — that’s what I used to tell Stephen.”

Le malheureux!” Mornington murmured as he bowed to the group, and let his smile change from one of respect to Gregory to one of friendliness for Barbara. The Archdeacon’s foot was poised doubtfully for a moment over the first stair. But, if he had been inclined to go back, he changed his mind and went on towards the front door, with the other in attendance.

“Yes,” Barbara said, distracted by Mornington’s passing, “yes, I expect you’re right.”

“I suppose,” Gregory remarked, changing the conversation, “that you’ve settled your holiday plans by now. Where are you going?”

“Well, sir,” Lionel said, “we weren’t going away this year at all. But Adrian had a slight attack of measles a month or so ago, so we decided we ought to, just to put him thoroughly right. Only every place is booked up and we don’t seem able to get anything.”

“I don’t want to seem intrusive,” Gregory said hesitatingly, “but, if you really want a place, there’s a cottage — not a very grand one — down near where I live. It’s on my grounds actually, and it’s quite empty just now . . . if it’s any good to you.”

“But, Mr. Persimmons, how charming of you!” Barbara cried. “That would be delightful and just the thing. Where do you live, by the way?”

“I’ve just taken a place in the country,” Gregory answered, “in Hertfordshire, near a little village called Fardles. Indeed, I’ve only just moved in. It belonged to a Lady Sykes–Martindale, but she’s been advised to go to Egypt for her health, and I took the house. So it’s quite new to me. Adrian and I could explore it together.”

“How splendid!” Barbara said. “But are you quite sure, Mr. Persimmons? I did want to get away, but we were giving up hope. Are you quite sure we shan’t be intruding?”

“Not if you will let me see something of you there,” Gregory assured her. “And, if Adrian liked me enough,” he smiled at the boy, “you and your husband —” A motion of his hand threw England open to their excursions.

“It’s very good of you, sir,” Lionel began.

“Nonsense, nonsense,” the other answered. “There’s the cottage and here are you. I’ll write about it. When do you go, Rackstraw? July? I’ll write in a week or two, then. And now I must go and look at more figures. Good night, Mrs. Rackstraw. I shall see you again in five weeks or so. Good night, Adrian.” He bowed down to shake the small hand. “Good night, Rackstraw. I’m delighted you’ll come.” He waved his hand generally and departed.

“What a divine creature!” Barbara said, going down the stairs. “Adrian darling, we’re really going away. Would you like to go into the country?”

“Where is the country?” Adrian said.

“Oh — out there,” Barbara said. “Away from the streets. With fields and cows.”

“I don’t like cows,” Adrian said coldly.

“I daresay you won’t see any,” Lionel put in. “It does seem rather fortunate, Barbara.”

“I think it’s perfectly splendid,” Barbara said joyously.

“Can I take my new train?” Adrian asked. And, in a whirl of assurances that he should take anything he liked or needed or had the slightest inclination to take, they came out into the hot June evening.

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