War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Nine

The Flight of the Duke of the North Ridings

When the Duke’s car arrived outside the Rectory about twelve on the Monday, its driver saw at the gates another car, at the wheel of which sat a policeman whom he recognized.

“Hallo, Puttenham,” he said. “Is the Chief Constable here then?”

“Inside, your Grace,” Constable Puttenham answered, saluting. “Making inquiries about the outrage, I believe.”

The Duke, rather annoyed, looked at the Rectory. He disliked the Chief Constable, who had taken up the business of protecting people, developed it into a hobby, and was rapidly making it a mania and a nuisance — at least, so it appeared to the Duke. He remembered now that at a dinner at his own house some few days before the Chief Constable had held forth at great length on a lack of readiness in the public to assist the police, as exemplified by the failure of the Archdeacon of Fardles to report to them one case of sacrilege and one of personal assault. It had been objected that the Archdeacon had been confined to his bed for some time, but now that he had preached again the Chief Constable had obviously determined to see what his personal investigation and exhortation could do. The Duke hesitated for a moment, but it occurred to him that Mornington might welcome the opportunity of escaping, and he strolled slowly up to the door. Introduced into the study, he found the Chief Constable in a high state of argumentative irritation, Mornington irrationally scornful of everything, and the Archdeacon — for all he could see — much as usual.

“How do, Ridings,” the Chief Constable said, after the priest had greeted his visitor. “Perhaps you may help me to talk sense. The Archdeacon here says he’s lost a chalice, and won’t help the proper authorities to look for it.”

“But I don’t want them to look for it,” the Archdeacon said, “if you mean the police. You asked me if I knew what the hypothetical tramp or tramps were looking for, and I said yes — the old chalice that used to be here. You asked me if it had disappeared, and I said yes. But I don’t want you to look for it.”

The Duke began to feel that there might be something satisfying about even an Anglican priest. There were few things he himself would like less than to have the Chief Constable looking for anything he had lost. But robbery was robbery, and though, of course, a priest who wasn’t a priest could have no real use for a chalice, still, a chalice was a chalice, and, anyhow, the Chief Constable was sure to go on looking for it, so why not let him? But he didn’t say this; he merely nodded and glanced at Mornington.

“I suppose you want to find it?” the Chief Constable said laboriously.

“I don’t — you must excuse me, but you drive me to it,” the Archdeacon answered. “I don’t want the police to find it. First, because I don’t care for the Church to make use of the secular arm; secondly, because it would make the whole thing undesirably public; thirdly, because I know where it is; and fourthly, because they couldn’t prove it was there.”

“Well, sir,” Kenneth said sharply, “then, if it can’t be proved, we oughtn’t to throw accusations about.”

“Precisely what I am not doing,” the Archdeacon answered, crossing his legs. “I don’t accuse anyone. I only say I know where it is.”

“And where is it?” the Chief Constable asked. “And how do you know it is there?”

“First,” the Archdeacon said, “in the possession of Mr. Persimmons of Cully — probably on a bracket in his hall, but I’m not certain of that. Secondly, by a combination of directions arising out of the education of children, books of black magic, a cancelled paragraph in some proofs, an attempt to cheat me, the place where the Cup was kept, a motor-car, a reported threat, and a few other things.”

The Chief Constable was still blinking over the sudden introduction of Mr. Persimmons of Cully, and it was the Duke who asked, “But if you have all these clues, what’s the uncertainty — in your own mind?” he added suddenly, as he also became aware of the improbability of a country householder knocking an Archdeacon on the head in order to steal his chalice.

“There is no uncertainty in my own mind,” the priest answered. “But the police would not be able to find a motive.”

“We of course can,” Kenneth said scornfully.

“We — if you say we — can,” the Archdeacon said, “for we know what it was, and we know that many kinds of religion are possible to men.”

“You are sure now that it was — it?” Kenneth answered.

“No,” the priest answered, “but I have decided in my own mind that I will believe that. No-one can possibly do more than decide what to believe.”

“Do I understand, Mr. Archdeacon,” the Chief Constable asked, “that you accuse Mr. Persimmons of stealing this chalice? And why should he want to steal a chalice? And if he did, would he be likely to keep it in his hall?”

“There is always the Purloined Letter,” the Duke murmured thoughtfully. “But even there the letter wasn’t pinned up openly on a notice-board. Couldn’t we go and see?”

“That is what I was going to suggest,” said the Chief Constable. He stood up cheerfully. “I quite understand about your anxiety over the loss of this chalice”— Kenneth cackled suddenly and walked to the window. “Anyone would be anxious about a chalice of, I understand, great antiquarian interest. But I feel so certain you’re mistaken in this . . . idea about Mr. Persimmons that I can’t help feeling that a meeting perhaps, and a little study of his chalice, and so on . . . And then you must give us a free hand.” He looked almost hopefully at the priest. “If you could spare us half an hour now, say?”

“I can’t possibly move from here,” the Archdeacon said, “without a clear understanding that I don’t accuse Mr. Persimmons in any legal or official sense at all. I will come with you if you like, because I can’t refuse a not-immoral call from the Chief Magistrate”— the Chief Constable looked gratified “and, as I have no reason to consider Mr. Persimmons’s feelings — I really haven’t,” he added aside to Kenneth, who had turned to face the room again —“I should like, as a matter of curiosity, to see if it’s another chalice or if it’s mine. But that’s all.”

“I quite understand,” the Chief Constable said sunnily. “Ridings, are you coming? Mr. —?” He hesitated uncertainly. The Duke looked at Kenneth, who said: “I think I ought to go; it won’t take long. Would you mind waiting a few minutes?”

“I’ll take you to the gate,” the Duke said, “and wait for you there — then we’ll go straight on.”

Between the Archdeacon and the Chief Constable in their car the only conversation was a brief one upon the weather; in that which preceded them, Mornington, in answer to the Duke’s inquiries, sketched the situation as he understood it.

“And what do you think yourself?” the Duke asked.

Mornington grimaced. “Certum quia impossibile,” he said. “If I must come down on one side or the other, I fall on the Archdeacon’s. Especially since yesterday,” he said resentfully. “But it’s all insane. Persimmons’s explanation is perfectly satisfactory — and yet it just isn’t. The paragraph and the Cup were both there — and now they both aren’t.”

“Well,” the Duke said, “if I can help annoy the Chief Constable, tell me. He once told me that poetry wasn’t practical.”

At the gates of Cully the cars stopped. “Will you come in, Ridings?” the Chief Constable asked.

“No,” the Duke said; “what have I to do with these things? Don’t be longer than you can help catechizing and analysing and the rest of it.” He watched them out of sight, took a writing-pad from his pocket, and settled down to work on a drama in the Greek style upon the Great War and the fall of the German Empire. The classic form appeared to him capable at once of squeezing the last drop of intensity out of the action and of presenting at once the broadest and most minute effects. The scene was an open space behind the German lines in France; the time was in March 1918; the chorus consisted of French women from the occupied territory; and the deus ex machina was represented by a highly formalized St. Denis, whom the Duke was engaged in making as much like Phoebus Apollo as he could. He turned to the god’s opening monologue.

Out of those habitable, fields which are

Nor swept by fire nor venomous with war,

But, being disposed by . . .

He brooded over whether to say Zeus or God.

Meanwhile, Gregory received his guests with cold politeness, to which a much warmer courtesy was opposed by the Archdeacon. “It isn’t my fault that we’re here,” the priest said, when he had introduced the Chief Constable. “Colonel Conyers insisted on coming. He’s looking for the chalice that was stolen.”

“It certainly isn’t my wish,” the irritated Colonel said, finding himself already in a false position. “The Archdeacon gave me to understand that he believed the chalice had somehow got into Cully, and I thought if that was cleared up we should all know better where we were.”

“I suppose,” Gregory said, “that it was Mr. Mornington who told you I had a chalice here.”

“You remember I saw it myself,” the Archdeacon said. “It was the position then that made me feel sure it was the . . . it was an important one. You people are so humorous.” He shook his head, and hummed under his breath: “Oh, give thanks to the God of all gods . . . ”

Colonel Conyers looked from one to the other. “I don’t quite follow all this,” he said a trifle impatiently.

“‘For his’— it doesn’t at all matter —‘mercy endureth for ever,’” the Archdeacon concluded, with a genial smile. He seemed to be rising moment by moment into a kind of delirious delight. His eyes moved from one to the other, changing from mere laughter as he looked at the Colonel into an impish and teasing mischief for Persimmons, and showing a feeling of real affection as they rested on Kenneth, between whom and himself there had appeared the beginnings of a definite attraction and friendship. Gregory looked at him with a certain perplexity. He understood Sir Giles’s insolent rudeness, though he despised it as Giles despised his own affectation of smoothness. But he saw no reason in the Archdeacon’s amusement, and began to wonder seriously whether Ludding’s blow had affected his mind. He glanced over at Mornington — there at least he had power, and understood his power. Then he looked at the Chief Constable and waited. So for a minute or two they all stood in silence, which the Colonel at last broke.

“I thought,” he began, rather pointedly addressing himself to Persimmons, “that if you would show us this chalice of yours it would convince the Archdeacon that it wasn’t his.”

“With pleasure,” Gregory answered, going towards the bracket and followed by the others. “Here it is. Do you want to know the full history? I had it —” he began, repeating what Kenneth had heard the previous day.

Colonel Conyers looked at the priest. “Well?” he said.

The Archdeacon looked, and grew serious. His spirit felt its own unreasonable gaiety opening into a wider joy; its dance became a more vital but therefore a vaster thing. Faintly again he heard the sound of music, but now not from without, or indeed from within, from some non-spatial, non-temporal, non-personal existence. It was music, but not yet music, or if music, then the music of movement itself — sound produced, not by things, but in the nature of things. He looked, and looked again, and felt himself part of a moving river flowing towards some narrow channel on a ripple of which the Graal was as a gleam of supernatural light. “Yes,” he said softly, “it is the Cup.”

Gregory shrugged, and looked at the Chief Constable. “I will give you the address of the man from whom I bought it,” he said, “and you can make what inquiries you like — if you think it necessary.”

The Colonel pursed his lips, and said in a lowered voice, “I will tell you if it’s necessary. But I’m not sure the identification is sufficiently valuable. I understand the Archdeacon had an accident to his head some time ago.”

“Unfortunately, it was I who found him lying in the road and brought him home, and I think that’s confused the idea of robbery with me,” Gregory continued, also in a subdued voice. “It’s very unfortunate, and rather embarrassing for me. I don’t want to appear unneighbourly, and if it goes on I shall have to think about selling the house. He’s an old resident, and I’m a new one, and, of course, people would rather believe him. If I gave him this chalice — but I should be sorry to part with it. I like old things, but I don’t like them enough to half kill a clergyman to get them. I’m in your hands, Colonel. What do you advise?”

The Colonel considered. Kenneth had walked a little distance away, so as not to appear to overhear their talk; the Archdeacon was still gazing at the chalice as if in a trance. But now he was conscious of some slight movement on his own part towards which he was impelled; he knew the signs of that approaching direction, and awaited it serenely. By long practice he had accustomed himself in any circumstances — in company or alone, at work or at rest, in speech or in silence — to withdraw into that place where action is created. The cause of all action there disposed itself according to that Will which was its nature, and, so disposing itself, moved him easily as a part of its own accommodation to the changing wills of men, so that at any time and at all times its own perfection was maintained, now known in endurance, now in beauty, now in wisdom, now in joy. There was no smallest hesitation which it would not solve, nor greatest anxiety which it did not make lucid. In that light other things took on a new aspect, and the form of Gregory, where he stood a few steps away, seemed to swell into larger dimensions. But this enlargement was as unreal as it was huge; the sentences which he had altered a few days back on denying and defying Destiny boomed like unmeaning echoes across creation. Nothing but Destiny could defy Destiny; all else which sought to do so was pomposity so extreme as to become merely silly. It was a useless attempt at usurpation, useless and yet slightly displeasing, as pomposity always is. In the universe, as in Fardles, pomposity was bad manners; from its bracket the Graal shuddered forward in a movement of innocent distaste. The same motion that seemed to touch it touched the Archdeacon also; they came together and were familiarly one. And the Archdeacon, realizing with his whole mind what had happened, turned with unexpected fleetness and ran for the hall door.

Everyone else ran also. The Colonel, having made up his mind, had drawn Gregory a few steps away, and was telling him what he advised. Neither of them had seen, as Kenneth did, the unexpected yet gentle movement with which the Archdeacon seemed suddenly to reach up, take hold of the Cup, and begin to run. But they heard the first step, and rushed. Kenneth, who was nearer the door, was passed by the priest before he could move; then he also took to his heels. The Archdeacon, practised on his feet in many fencing bouts, flew out of the door and down the drive, and Gregory and the Colonel both lost breath — the first yelling for Ludding, the second shouting after the priest. Kenneth only, in as good condition, younger and with longer legs, overtook the fugitive half-way to the gates. Up to that moment he had still been sceptical and undetermined in his mind; but he knew, as he came level, that, right or wrong, it was impossible for him to lay a detaining hand upon his friend, and as he felt the decision taken his own gaiety returned. He ran on in advance, reached the gate and threw it open, reached the Duke’s car in three strides, and opened that door also.

The Duke had been writing poetry; Constable Puttenham had been asleep in the August sun. But the Duke, hesitating over a word, had been staring at the gate, and saw the returning guests before the distant shouts had done more than pleasantly mingle with the constable’s dreams.

“Drive like hell,” Kenneth said to the Duke as the Archdeacon reached the car, and himself jumped up by the driver’s side. The constable, awaking to cries of “Puttenham” from the Colonel rushing round the curve of the drive, sat bolt upright. “Stop him, Puttenham,” the Colonel yelled. But the bewildered policeman saw no-one to stop. He saw the Archdeacon settling down in the car, and Mornington by the Duke’s side. He saw the other car begin to move, but who it was he was to stop was by no means clear — it couldn’t be the Duke. Nevertheless, the ducal car was the only thing in sight — unless it was Gregory Persimmons; he by now had reached the gate in advance of the shouting Colonel. The constable ran for him, and met him. “Not me, you everlasting ape!” Gregory howled at him. “The car, you baboon, the car!” “The Archdeacon,” the Colonel bellowed. “Stop the Archdeacon!” The constable left Gregory and began to run after the car, which by now had got fairly started. “Stop, God blast you!” the Colonel yelled again. “Come back, you fool!” The constable, in one entire maze, stopped and came back, to find Gregory and the Colonel scrambling into their own car. “Drive like hell,” the Colonel said; “we may catch him.”

“After the Duke, sir?” the bewildered constable asked.

“After that damned black-coated hypocrite,” the Colonel shouted, still in a stentorian voice, so that the Archdeacon, a quarter of a mile away, unconsciously turned to protest. “I’ll unfrock him — I’ll have him in the dock!”

Drive,” Gregory said, looking unpleasantly at the constable, and the constable drove.

So through the English roads the Graal was borne away in the care of a Duke, an Archdeacon, and a publisher’s clerk, pursued by a country householder, the Chief Constable of a county, and a perplexed policeman. And these things also perhaps the angels desired to look into.

At least the Duke of the North Ridings did. After a few moments he said to Mornington, “I suppose you know what we’re doing?”

“We’re carrying the San Graal,” Mornington said. “Lancelot and Pelleas and Pellinore — no, that’s not right — Bors and Percivale and Galahad. The Archdeacon’s Galahad, and you can be Percivale: you’re not married, are you? And I’m Bors-but I’m not married either, and Bors was. It doesn’t matter; you must be Percivale, because you’re a poet. And Bors was an ordinary workaday fellow like me. On, on to Sarras!” He looked back over his shoulder. “Sari-as!” he cried to the car behind. “We shall meet at Carbonek!”

“What in God’s name are you singing about?” the Duke asked.

Mornington was about to reply when the Archdeacon, leaning forward, said with a slight formality: “I couldn’t take advantage of your kindness, my lord, unless you knew the circumstances. I don’t want to rush you . . . ”

“Really?” the Duke said, manipulating a corner. “Oh, really? Well, I’m not objecting, but — damn that dog! — there seems to be a slight rush somewhere. Perhaps it’s the people behind. Mornington, stop laughing and tell me where I’m to drive to.”

“But, indeed,” the Archdeacon protested, “I’d rather you put me down than —”

“No, look here,” Kenneth said, pulling himself together, “it’s all right really. Honestly, Ridings. The Archdeacon has got the Graal there.”

“The Graal?” the Duke said, and again, in a voice that rejected the idea still more strongly, “The Graal?”

“The Graal,” Kenneth assured him. “Malory? Tennyson — Chretien de Troyes — Miss Jessie Weston. From Romance to Reality, or whatever she called it. That’s what’s happening, anyhow. I give you my word, Ridings, that it’s really serious.”

The Duke spared him a glance. An hour’s conversation on literature between two ardent minds with a common devotion to a neglected poet is a miraculous road to intimacy. Mornington went on explaining as quietly and as clearly as was possible, and at last the Duke said, shrugging his shoulders, “Well, if you say so . . . But where are we going?”

Kenneth looked back at the Archdeacon, then changed his mind and said, “Where are we going now, anyhow?”

“London as straight as we can,” the Duke answered.

“Humph!” said Kenneth. “I suppose you’ve got a house there?”

“Of sorts,” the Duke answered.

“Well, let’s go there, and we can tell you the whole thing in full. Unless they telephone to the police on the way?” Over his shoulder he offered the Archdeacon the question.

“I don’t think he’ll do that,” the priest said. “He wants it kept quiet too.”

“They can’t stop us without arresting us,” the Duke said thoughtfully, “if I refuse to stop.”

“Arrest of the Duke of the North Ridings and the Archdeacon of Fardles. Strange story. Is the Holy Graal in England? Evidence by a retired publisher. By God, Ridings, they daren’t stop us!” Kenneth cried, as the magnitude of the possibilities of publicity became clear to him.

“London, then,” the Duke said, and gave himself up to his destiny.

Kenneth glanced back at the pursuing car. “The Archdeacon’s lost his Rectory,” he thought, “and I’ve lost my job, and the Duke’s near losing his reputation. But poor old Gregory’s lost the Graal — and Giles Tumulty will lose his nerve if I ever get a chance at him,” he added, remembering the previous afternoon.

In the pursuing car the same thought of publicity entered the minds of its occupants, and first of Gregory. He was therefore in time to check the impulse of Colonel Conyers towards the station telephone by pointing out to him the dimensions of the scandal which might result. “In the courts it’s bound at best to be a drawn battle; I may recover the chalice, but a lot of people will believe the Archdeacon — all the clerical party. Whereas, if we can only get hold of the Duke and explain matters, it’s quite likely he’ll see how strong my case is. Is he a great friend of the Archdeacon’s?”

“I didn’t know they even knew each other,” the Chief Constable said. “The Duke’s a Roman Catholic; all his family are. He’s in with the Norfolks, too; his mother was a Howard. It makes this freak of his all the more surprising. That damned clergyman must have bamboozled him somehow.”

As they rushed on, however, Gregory began to recover his poise; the Duke was the only unknown quantity in the allied opposition, and he found it impossible to believe that the Duke was unpersuadable. He had other resources after all; there was Sir Giles, who had a good deal of curious knowledge of hidden circles, for it was at his advice that a visit had been paid on the Saturday to the Greek in the chemist’s shop. Sir Giles had insisted that a pedigree could be more easily and more certainly created there than by a reliance on the less effective Stephen. With this, and the police if necessary behind him, he smiled at the car in front, which maintained a steady space between them. It escaped, as a white hart of heaven, before the pursuing hounds — escaped for a while, but hardly, and with little hope. The teeth were gnashing behind at it; already the blood showed here and there on the white coat; already the pursuer felt the taste in his mouth. Mornington should suffer; that was clear; and the Archdeacon — but how was not yet clear. And the Graal should be withdrawn again into the seclusion of a frozen sanctuary.

They approached London, still with the distance varyingly, but on the whole steadily, maintained; they entered it, and ran down towards the West End. The Duke kept the car at as great a speed as possible, and stopped it at a house in Grosvenor Square. Mornington sprang out and opened the door for the Archdeacon, who got out, still holding the Graal, and the three ran to the front door, which opened before them. The Duke pushed the other two in, and, with his arms in theirs, led them on through the hall, saying over his shoulder as he did so, “If anyone calls, Thwaites, I am not at home.”

“Very good, your Grace,” the footman said, and went calmly to the door as footsteps sounded before it.

“Ridings, Ridings!” the Colonel called, and found his way blocked as the Duke and his friends disappeared in the indistinct shadows.

“His Grace is not at home, sir,” the footman said.

“Damn it, man, I saw him!” the Colonel cried.

“I am sorry, sir, but his Grace is not at home.”

“I am the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire,” Colonel Conyers raged. “I represent the police.”

“I am sorry, sir, but his Grace is not at home.”

Gregory touched the Colonel’s arm. “It’s no use,” he said. “We must write, or I must call presently.”

“It’s perfectly monstrous,” the Colonel cursed. “The whole thing’s insane and ridiculous. Look here, my man, I want to see the Duke on important business.”

“I am sorry, sir, but his Grace is not at home.”

“Come with me,” Gregory said. “Let’s make sure of my right first and enforce it afterwards.”

“You’ll hear more of this,” the Colonel said threateningly. “It’s no use standing there and telling me these lies. Tell Ridings I’m going to have an explanation, and the sooner he lets me hear from him the better. I’ve never been treated like this before in my whole life.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but his Grace?”

The Colonel flung away, and Gregory went with him. The footman closed the door, and, hearing the bell, went to the library.

“Have they gone?” the Duke asked.

“Yes, your Grace. One of the gentlemen seemed rather annoyed. He asked you to write to him explaining.”

The three looked at one another. “Very well, Thwaites,” the Duke said. “I’m not at home to anyone till after lunch, and see that we have something to eat as soon as possible.” Then, as the servant left the room, he sat down and turned to the priest. “And now,” he said, “let’s hear about this Graal.”

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