War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Five

The Chemist’s Shop

For some three weeks the Archdeacon was in retirement, broken only by the useful fidelity of Mrs. Lucksparrow and the intrusive charity of Mr. Batesby, who, having arrived at the Rectory for one reason, was naturally asked to remain for another. As soon as the invalid was allowed to receive visitors, Mr. Batesby carried the hint of the New Testament, “I was sick and ye visited me” to an extreme which made nonsense of the equally authoritative injunction to be “wise as serpents.” He was encouraged by the feeling which both the doctor and Mrs. Lucksparrow had that it was fortunate another member of the profession should be at hand, and by the success with which the Archdeacon, dizzy and yet equable, concealed his own feelings when his visitor, chatting of Prayer Book Revision, parish councils, and Tithe Acts, imported to them a high eternal flavour which savoured of Deity Itself. Each day after he had gone the Archdeacon found himself inclined to brood on the profound wisdom of that phrase in the Athanasian Creed which teaches the faithful that “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God” are salvation and the Divine End achieved. That the subjects of their conversation should be taken into God was normal and proper; what else, the Archdeacon wondered, could one do with parish councils? But his goodwill could not refrain from feeling that to Mr. Batesby they were opportunities for converting the Godhead rather firmly and finally into flesh. “The dear flesh,” he murmured, thinking ruefully of the way his own had been treated.

In London the tracing of the murderer seemed, so far as Stephen Persimmons and his people could understand, to be a slow business. Descriptions of the murdered man had been circulated without result. There had been no papers — with the exception, crammed into the corner of one pocket, of the torn half of a printed bill inviting the attendance of outsiders at a mission service to be held at some (the name was torn) Wesleyan church. The clothes of the dead man were not of the sort that yield clues — such as had any marks, collars and boots, were like thousands of others sold every day in London. There were, of course, certain minor peculiarities about the body, but these, though useful for recognition, were of no help towards identification.

Investigations undertaken among the van-men, office boys, and others who had been about the two streets and the covered way about the time when the corpse entered the building resulted in the discovery of eleven who had noticed nothing, five who had seen him enter alone (three by the front and two by the side door), one who had seen him in company with an old lady, one with a young lad, three with a man about his own age and style, and one who had a clear memory of his getting out of a taxi, from which a clean-shaven or bearded head had emerged to give a final message and which had then been driven off. But no further success awaited investigations among taxi-drivers, and the story was eventually dismissed as a fantasy.

Mornington suspected that a certain examination into the circumstances of the members of the staff had taken place, but, if so, he quoted to his employer from Flecker, “the surveillance had been discreet.” Discreet or not, it produced no results, any more than the interview with Sir Giles Tumulty that Inspector Colquhoun secured.

“Rackstraw?” Sir Giles had said impatiently, screwing round from his writing-desk a small, brown wrinkled face toward the inspector, “yes, he came to lunch. Why not?”

“No reason at all, sir,” the inspector said, “I only wanted to be sure. And when did he leave you — if you remember?”

“About half-past two,” Sir Giles said. “Is that what he ought to have done? I’ll say two, if you like, if it’ll help you catch him. Only, if you do, you must arrange for me to see the hanging.”

“If he left at half-past two, that’s all I want to know,” the inspector said. “Did you happen to mention to anyone that he was coming?”

“Yes,” said Sir Giles, “I told the Prime Minister, the Professor of Comparative Etymology at King’s College, and the cook downstairs. Why the hell do you ask me these silly questions? Do you suppose I run round telling all my friends that a loathsome little publisher’s clerk is going to muck his food about at my table?”

“If you felt like that,” the inspector said, holding down his anger, “I wonder you asked him to lunch.”

“I asked him to lunch because I’d rather him foul my table than my time,” Tumulty answered. “I had to waste an hour over him because he didn’t understand a few simple things about my illustrations, and I saved it by working it in with lunch. I expect he charged overtime for it, so that he’d be two shillings to the good, one saved on his food and another extra pay. I should think he could get a woman for that one night. How much do you have to pay, policeman?”

The inspector at the moment felt merely that Sir Giles must be mad; it wasn’t till hours afterwards that he became slowly convinced that the question was meant as an insult beyond reach of pardon or vengeance. At the time he stared blankly and said soberly: “I’m a married man, sir.”

“You mean you get her for nothing?” Sir Giles asked. “Two can live as cheaply as one, and your extras thrown in? Optimistic, I’m afraid. Well, I’m sorry, but I have to go to the Foreign Office. Come and chat in the taxi; that’s what your London taxis are for. When I want a nice long talk with anyone I get in one at Westminster Abbey after lunch and tell him to go to the Nelson Column. We nearly always get there for tea. Oh, good-bye, policeman. Come again some day.”

The immediate result of this conversation was to cause Colquhoun to suspect Rackstraw more grievously than before. But no amount of investigation could prove the tale of the lunch unreliable or connect him in any way with an unexplained disappearance or even with any semi-criminal attitude towards the law. He owed no money; he seemed to do nothing but work and stop at home, and his connection with Sir Giles, which was the most suspicious thing about him, was limited apparently to the production of Sacred Vessels in Folklore. The inspector even went the length of procuring secretly through Stephen Persimmons an advance copy of this, and reading it through, but without any result.

Another of the advance copies Mornington had sent personally to the Archdeacon, and a few days before the official publication, and some four weeks after the archidiaconal visit to the publishing house he had a letter in reply.

DEAR MR. MORNINGTON, the Archdeacon wrote, I have to thank you very much for the early copy of Sacred Vessels which you were good enough to send me. It is a book of great interest, so far as anything intellectual can be, and especially to a clergyman; who has, so to speak, a professional interest in anything sacred, and especially to anything which has a bearing on Christian tradition — I mean, of course, Sir Giles Tumulty’s study of the possible history of the Holy Graal.

There is one point upon which I should like information if you are able to give it to me — if it is not a private matter. This article on the Graal contained, when I glanced through it in the proofs you showed me, a concluding paragraph which definitely fixed the possibility (within the limitations imposed by the very nature of Sir Giles’s research) of the Graal being identified with a particular chalice in a particular church. I have read the article as it now stands with the greatest care, but I cannot find any such paragraph. Could you tell me (1) whether the paragraph was in fact deleted, (2) whether, if so, the reason was any grave doubt of the identification, (3) whether it would be permissible for me to get into touch with Sir Giles Tumulty on the subject?

Please forgive me troubling you so much on a matter which has only become accidentally known to me through your kindness. I am a little ashamed of my own curiosity, but perhaps my profession excuses it in general and in particular.

I hope, if you are ever in or near Castra Parvulorum, you will make a special point of calling at the Rectory. I have one or two early editions — one of the Ascent of Mount Carmel— which might interest you.

Yours most sincerely,

JULIAN DAVENANT.

“Bless him,” Mornington said to himself as, coiled curiously round his chair, he read the letter, “bless him and damn him! I suppose Lionel will know.” He dropped the letter on his desk, and was opening another, when Stephen Persimmons came into the office. After a few sentences had been exchanged, Stephen said: “When do you go for your holidays, Mornington?”

“I was going at the end of August — for some of them, anyhow,” Mornington answered —“if that fits in all right. It fitted in when I fixed it. But I’m only walking a little, so, if there’s any need, I can easily alter it.”

“The fact is,” Stephen went on, “I’ve been asked to go with some people I know to the South of France at the beginning of August, and I might stop six weeks or so if things didn’t call me back. But I like you to be here while I’m away.”

“The beginning of August — six weeks —” Mornington murmured, “and it’s the fifth of July now. Well, sir, I’ll go before or after, whichever you like. Rackstraw goes next Friday, and he’ll be back by the end of the month.”

“Are you sure it’s convenient?” Stephen asked.

“Entirely,” the other said. “I shall walk as long as I feel like it, and stop when and where I feel like it. And I can walk in July as well as in September. Anyhow, I’m only taking ten days or a fortnight now. I have to go to my mother in Cornwall in October for the rest.”

“Well, what about now, then?” said Stephen.

“Now, then,” Mornington answered. “Or at least Friday week, shall we say? Unless, of course, I’m arrested. I feel that’s always possible. Didn’t I see the inspector calling on you the other day, sir?”

“You did, blast him!” Stephen broke out. “Why that wretched creature got huddled up here I can’t imagine. It’s killing me, Mornington, all this worry!” He got up and wandered round the office.

Behind his back his lieutenant raised surprised eyebrows. It was a nuisance, of course, but, as Stephen Persimmons had for alibi the statement of every other reputable publisher in London, this agitation seemed excessive. It might be the murder in general, but why worry? Stephen was always reasonably decent to the staff, but to worry over whether any of them had committed a murder seemed to point to a degree of personal interest which surprised him.

“I know,” he said sympathetically. “You feel you’d like to murder the fellow just for having been murdered. Some people always muddle their engagements. Probably he had arranged to be done in at a tea-shop or somewhere like that — he was just that kind of fellow — and then got mixed and came here first. Has the inspector any kind of clue? The body, by now, is past inspecting.”

“I don’t believe he knows anything, but one can’t be sure,” Persimmons answered. “And, of course, if he does it needn’t —”

He became unhappily silent.

Mornington uncoiled himself and got up. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to go away now for a week or two, sir?” he said. “It’s rather knocked you over, I expect.”

“No,” Stephen said, drifting to the door. “No, I can’t go away now. I simply can’t. We’ll leave it at that then.” He disappeared.

“We seem to be leaving it at a very undefined that,” Mornington thought to himself, as he went back to his letters. “Stephen never was what the deceased would probably have called ‘brainy’. But he seems rather cloudy even for him.”

Later in the day he replied to the camp of the children.

MY DEAR MR. ARCHDEACON,

— The fact is that the paragraph you refer to was cut out by Sir Giles Tumulty at the last moment. This puts us in a mild fix, because I suppose technically proofs in a publisher’s office are private, till the book is published. And after, for that matter. I am given to understand by the people here who have met him that he is the nearest to a compound of a malevolent hyena and an especially venomous cobra that ever appeared in London, and I shrink therefore from officially confirming your remembrance of that paragraph. But you were here, and you saw the proofs, and, if you could conceal the unimportant fact that we showed them to you, write to Sir Giles by all means.

This sounds as if I were proposing an immorality. But it only means that, while I can’t officially say ‘Write,’ I am reluctant to say ‘Don’t write.’ Your tact will no doubt discover the wise road. Personally, I hope you’ll find out.

Thank you for your invitation. I may conceivably turn up one day before the month ends.

Did you have a pleasant time in Scotland?

Yours very sincerely,

K. H. MORNINGTON.

At the moment when this letter was being dictated Sir Giles had, in fact, a visitor from Fardles sitting with him; not the Archdeacon, but Mr. Gregory Persimmons. They were speaking in subdued tones, both of them rather greedily, as if they each wanted something from the other, and the subject of their conversation might have eluded Mornington, had he heard it, for a considerable time. When Gregory had been shown in, Sir Giles got up quickly from his table.

“Well?” he said.

Gregory came across to him, saying: “Oh, I’ve got it — a little more trouble than I thought, but I’ve got it. But I don’t quite like doing anything with it . . . In fact, I’m not quite sure what it’s best to do.”

Sir Giles pushed a chair towards him. “You don’t think,” he said. “What do you want to do?” He sat down again as he spoke, his little eager eyes fixed on the other, with a controlled but excited interest. Persimmons met them with a sly anxiety in his own.

“I want something else first,” he said. “I want that address.”

“Pooh,” Sir Giles said, “that won’t help you. Tell me more about this other thing first. Do you notice anything about it? How does it affect you?”

Gregory considered. “Not at all, I think,” he said. “It’s just an ordinary piece of work — with a curious smell about it sometimes.”

“Smell?” Sir Giles said. “Smell? What sort of smell?”

“Well,” Persimmons answered, “it’s more like ammonia than anything else; a sort of pungency. But I only notice it sometimes.”

“I knew a cannibal chief in Nigeria who said the same thing,” Sir Giles said musingly. “Not about that, of course, and not ammonia. It was a traditional taboo of the tribe — the dried head of a witch-doctor that was supposed to be a good omen to his people. He said it smelt like the fire that burned the uneaten offal of their enemies. Curious — the same notion of cleansing.”

Gregory sniggered. “It’ll take Him a good deal of ammonia to clean things out,” he said. “But it’d be like Him to use ammonia and the Bible and that kind of thing.”

Sir Giles switched back to the subject. “And what are you going to do with it?” he asked alertly.

Gregory eyed him. “Never mind,” he said. “Or, rather, why do you want to know?”

“Because I like knowing these things,” Sir Giles answered. “After all, I saved it for you when you asked me, on condition that you told me about your adventures, or let me see them for myself. You’re going mad, you know, Persimmons, and I like watching you.”

“Mad?” Gregory said, with another snigger. “You don’t go mad this way. People like my wife go mad, and Stephen. But I’ve got something that doesn’t go mad. I’m getting everything so.” He stretched out both arms and pressed them downwards with an immense gesture of weight, as if pushing the universe before and below him. “But I want the ointment.”

“Better leave it alone,” Sir Giles said tantalizingly. “It’s tricky stuff, Persimmons. A Jew in Beyrout tried it and didn’t get back. Filthy beast he looked, all naked and screaming that he couldn’t find his way. That was four years ago, and he’s screaming the same thing still, unless he’s dead. And there was another fellow in Valparaiso who got too far to be heard screaming; he died pretty soon, because he’d forgotten even how to eat and drink. They tried forcible feeding, I fancy, but it wasn’t a success: he was just continually sick. Better leave it alone, Persimmons.”

“I tell you I’m perfectly safe,” Gregory said. “You promised, Tumulty, you promised.”

“My lord God,” Sir Giles said, “what does that matter? I don’t care whether I promised or not; I don’t care whether you want it or not; I only wonder whether I shall get more from —” He broke off. “All right,” he said, “I’ll give you the address — 94, Lord Mayor Street, Finchley Road. Somewhere near Tally Ho Corner, I think. Quite respectable and all that. The man in Valparaiso was a solicitor. It’s in the middle classes one finds these things easiest. The lower classes haven’t got the money or the time or the intelligence, and the upper classes haven’t got the power or intelligence.”

Gregory was writing the address down, nodding to himself as he did so; then he looked at a clock, which stood on the writing-table, pleasantly clutched in a dried black hand set in gold. “I shall have time today,” he said. “I’ll go at once. I suppose he’ll sell it me? Yes, of course he will, I can see to that.”

“It’ll save you some time and energy,” Sir Giles said, “if you mention me. He’s a Greek of sorts — I’ve forgotten his name. But he doesn’t keep tons of it, you know. Now, look here, Persimmons. This is two things you have got out of me, and I’ve had nothing in return. You’d better ask me down to wherever you hatch gargoyles. I can’t come till after Monday because I’m speaking at University College then. I’ll come next Wednesday. What’s the station? Fardles? Send me a card to tell me the best afternoon train and have it met.”

Gregory promised in general terms to do this, and as quickly as he could got away. An hour after he had hunted out Lord Mayor Street.

It was not actually quite so respectable as Sir Giles had given him to understand. It had been once, no doubt, and was now half-way to another kind of respectability, being in the disreputable valley between two heights of decency. There were a sufficient number of sufficiently dirty children playing in the road to destroy privacy without achieving publicity: squalor was leering from the windows and not yet contending frankly and vainly with grossness. It was one of those sudden terraces of slime which hang over the pit of hell, and for which beastliness is too dignified a name. But the slime was still only oozing over it, and a thin cloud of musty pretence expanded over the depths below.

At one end of the road three shops huddled together in the thickest slime; a grocer’s at the corner, flying the last standard of respectability in an appeal towards the Finchley Road some couple of yards away — like Roland’s horn crying to Charlemagne. At the far end of the street a public house signalized the gathering of another code of decency and morals which might in time transform the intervening decay. Next to the grocer’s was a sweet-shop, on which the dingy white letters ADBU OC A appeared like a charm, and whose window displayed bars of chocolate even more degradingly sensual than the ordinary kind. Next to this was the last shop, a chemist’s. Its window had apparently been broken some time since and very badly mended with glass which must have been dirty when it was made, suggesting a kind of hypostatic union between clearness and dinginess. Nor, since the breakage, had the occupant, it seemed, troubled to redress the window; a few packets of soap and tooth-paste masked their own purpose by their appearance. Persimmons pushed open the door and, first looking to see that the shop was empty, went quietly in.

A young man was lounging behind the counter, but he did no more than look indolently at his customer. Persimmons tried to close the door and failed, until the other said “Push it at the bottom with your foot,” when he succeeded, for the door shut with an unexpected crash. Gregory came to the counter and looked at the shopman. He might be Greek, as Sir Giles had said, he might be anything, and the name over the door had been indecipherable. The two looked at one another silently.

At last Persimmons said: “You keep some rather out of the way drugs and things, don’t you?”

The other answered wearily: “Out of the way? I don’t know what you mean — out of the way? Nothing’s out of the way.”

“Out of the ordinary way,” Gregory said quickly and softly, “the way everyone goes.”

“They go nowhere,” the Greek said.

“But I go,” Persimmons answered, with the same swiftness as before. “You have something for me.”

“What I have is for buyers,” the other said, “all I have is for buyers. What do you want and what will you pay?”

“I think I have paid a price,” Gregory said, “but what more you ask you shall have.”

“Who sent you here?” the Greek asked.

“Sir Giles Tumulty,” said Gregory, “and others. But the others I cannot name. They say”— his voice began to tremble —“that you have an ointment.”

“I have many precious things.” The answer came out of an entire weariness which seemed to take from the adjective all its meaning. “But some of them are not for sale except to buyers.”

“I have bought everything.” Gregory leaned forward. “The time has come for me to receive.”

Still the other made no movement. “The ointment is rich and scarce and strange,” he said. “How do I know that you are worth a gift? And what will my master say if I mistake?”

“I cannot prove myself to you,” Gregory answered. “That I know of it — is not that enough?”

“It is not enough,” the other said. “But I have a friendship for all who are in the way. And priceless things are without any price. If you are not worth the gift, the gift is worth nothing to you. Have you ever used the ointment?”

“Never,” Gregory said; “but it is time, I am sure it is time.”

“You think so, do you?” the Greek said slowly. “There comes a time when there is nothing left but time — nothing. Take it if you like.”

Still with the minimum of movement, he put out his hand, opened a drawer in the counter, and pushed on to it a little cardboard box, rather greasy and dented here and there.

“Take it,” he said. “It will only give you a headache if you are not in the way.”

Gregory caught up the box and hesitated. “Do you want money?” he asked.

“It is a gift, but not a gift,” the other answered. “Give me what you will for a sign.”

Gregory put some silver on the counter and backed toward the door. But the same difficulty that had met him in closing it now held it fast. He pulled and pushed and struggled with it, and the Greek watched him with a faint smile. Outside it had begun to rain.

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