“This is far more than a war between Britain and America,” said the Lord Paramount. “Or any war. It is a struggle for the soul of man. All over the world. Let us suppose the President is hypocritical — and he MAY be hypocritical; nevertheless, he is appealing to something which has become very real and powerful in the world. He may be attempting only to take advantage of that something in order to turn the world against me, but that does not make that something to which he appeals less considerable. It is a spirit upon which he calls, a powerful, dangerous spirit. It is the antagonist to the spirit that sustains me, whose embodiment I am. It is my real enemy.”
“You say things so wonderfully,” said Mrs. Pinchot.
“You see this man, entrusted in wartime with the leadership of a mighty sovereign state, spits his venom against all sovereign states — against all separate sovereignty. He, the embodiment of a nation, deprecates nationality. He, the constitutional war leader, repudiates war. This is Anarchism enthroned — at the White House. Here is a mighty militant organization — and it has no face. Here is political blackness and night. This is the black threat at the end of history.”
He paused and resumed with infinite impressiveness:
“Everywhere this poison of intellectual restatement undermines men’s souls. Even honest warfare, you see, becomes impossible. Propaganda ousts the heroic deed. We promise. We camouflage. We change the face of things. Treason calls to treason.”
She sat tense, gripping her typewriter with both hands, her eyes devouring him.
“Not THUS,” said the Lord Paramount his fine voice vibrating. “Not THUS . . . .”
“The jewels of life I say are loyalty, flag, nation, obedience, sacrifice. . . . The Lord of Hosts! . . . Embattled millions! . . .
“I will fight to the end,” said the Lord Paramount. “I will fight to the end. . . . Demon, I defy thee! . . .”
His hands sought symbolic action. He crumpled the Presidential address into a ball. He pulled it out again into long rags and tore it to shreds and flung them over the carpet. He walked up and down, kicking them aside. He chanted the particulars of his position. “The enemy relentless — false allies — rebels in the Empire — treachery, evasion, and cowardice at home. God above me! It is no light task that I have in hand. Enemies that change shape, foes who are falsehoods! Is crown and culmination in the succession of empires ours to close in such a fashion? I fight diabolical ideas. If all the hosts of evil rise in one stupendous alliance against me, still will I face them for King and Nation and Empire.”
He was wonderful, that lonely and gigantic soul pacing the room, thinking aloud, hewing out his mighty apprehensions in fragmentary utterances. The scraps of the torn Presidential address now, in hopeless rout, showed a disposition to get under tables and chairs and into odd corners. It was as if they were ashamed of the monstrous suggestions of strange disloyalties that they had brought to him.
“Curious and terrifying to trace the growth of this Adversary, the Critical Spirit, this destroyer of human values . . . . From the days when Authority ruled. When even to question was fatal. . . . Great days then for the soul. Simple faith and certain action. Right known and Sin defined. Now we are nowhere. Sheep without a shepherd. . . . First came little disloyalties rebellious of sense and sloth. Jests — corrosive jests. Impatience with duty. One rebel seeking fellowship by corrupting his fellow. The simple beliefs, incredible as fact but absolutely true for the soul. That was the beginning. If you question them they go: the ages of faith knew that. But man must question, question, question. Man must innovate — stray. So easy to question and so fatal. Then Science arises, a concatenation of questions, at first apologetic and insidious. Then growing proud and stubborn. Everything shall be investigated, everything shall be made plain, everything shall be certain. Pour your acids on the altar! It dissolves. Clearly it was nothing but marble. Pour them on the crown! It was just a circle of metal — alloyed metal. Pour them on the flag! It turns red and burns. So none of these things matter . . . .
“Why was this not arrested? Why did authority lose confidence and cease to strike? What lethargy crept into the high places? . . .
“And so at last the human story comes to a pause. The spirit of human history halts at her glorious warp and weft, turns aside, and asks, ‘Shall I go on?’
“SHALL SHE GO ON? With God’s help I will see that she goes on. One mighty struggle, one supreme effort, and then we will take Anarchy — which is Science the Destroyer — by the throat. This Science, which pretends to be help and illumination, which illuminates nothing but impenetrable darkness, must cease. Cease altogether. We must bring our world back again to tradition, to the classical standards, to the ancient and, for man, the eternal values, the historical forms, which express all that man is or can ever be . . . .
“I thought that Science was always contradicting herself, but that is only because she contradicts all history. Essential to science is the repudiation of ALL foundations, her own included. She disdains philosophy. The past is a curiosity — or waste paper. Anarchism! Nothing is, but everything is going to be. She redeems all her promises with fresh promissory notes . . . .
“Perpetually Science is overthrown, and perpetually she rises the stronger for her overthrow. It is the story of Antæus! Yet Hercules slew him!”
“MY Hercules!” whispered Mrs. Pinchot, just audibly.
“Held him and throttled him!”
“Yes, yes,” she whispered, “with those strong arms.”
The manner of the Lord Paramount changed.
He stood quite still and looked his little secretary in her deep, dark eyes. For one instant his voice betrayed tenderness. “It is a great thing,” he said, “to have one human being at least in whose presence the armour can be laid aside.” She made no answer, but it was as if her whole being dilated and glowed through her eyes.
Their souls met in that instant’s silence.
“And now to work,” said the Lord Paramount, and was again the steely master of his destiny.
“Oh, God!” he cried abruptly and jumped a foot from the ground.
There was no need for her to ask the reason for this sudden reversal of his dignity.
A whining overhead, a long whining sound, had grown louder, and then a loud explosion close at hand proclaimed that another enemy aeroplane had slipped through the London cordon. She leapt to her feet and handed him his gas mask before she adjusted her own, for one must set a good example and wear what the people have been told to wear.
“There’s no gas,” he said and pointed to the clear red glow in the east. He tore off his mask, for he hated to have his face concealed. He sniffed the pervading anti-gas with satisfaction. He echoed in a tone of wonder, “STILL there is no gas.”
She too emerged from her disfiguring visor. “But are we safe?” she asked.
“Trust me,” he said.
The sky was full of the loud drone of engines, but no aircraft was visible. The evening was full of warm-tinted clouds, and the raiders and the fighting machines were no doubt dodging each other above that canopy. The distant air barrage made an undertone to the engine whir, as if an immense rubber ball were being bounced on an equally immense tin tray. The big Rolls–Royce had vanished. Its driver, perhaps, had taken it to some less conspicuous position and had not yet returned.
“I find something exhilarating in all this,” said the Lord Paramount. “I do not see why I should not share the dangers of my people.”
A few other intrepid spirits were walking along Whitehall, wearing gas masks of various patterns, and some merely with rags and handkerchiefs to their mouths. Many, like the Lord Paramount, had decided that the fear of gas was premature and either carried their masks in their hands or attempted no protection. Except for two old-fashioned water carts, there were no vehicles in sight. These water carts were busy spraying a heavy, slowly volatile liquid with a sweetish offensive odour that was understood to be an effective antidote to most forms of gas poisoning. It gave off a bluish low-lying mist that swirled and vanished as it diffused. A great deal of publicity had been given to the anti-gas supply after the East End panic. The supply of illuminating gas had been cut off now for some days, and the retorts and mains had been filled with an anti-gas of established efficacy which could be turned on when required from the normal burners. This had the same sweetish smell as the gas sprayed from the carts, and it had proved very reassuring to the public when raids occurred.
“Let us walk up Whitehall,” said the Lord Paramount. “I seem to remember an instruction that the car should shelter from observation under the Admiralty arch in case of a raid. We might go up there.”
“You are not nervous?” he asked.
“Beside you!” she glowed.
The car was not under the arch, and they went on into the Square. There seemed to be a lull in the unseen manoeuvres overhead. Either the invaders had gone altogether or they were too high to be heard or they had silencers for their engines. The only explosions audible were the deep and distant firing of the guns of the outer aircraft zone.
“It is passing over,” said the Lord Paramount. “They must have made off.”
Then he remarked how many people were abroad and how tranquil was their bearing. There were numbers visible now. A moment ago they had seemed alone. Men and women were coming out from the station of the tube railway very much as they might have emerged after a shower of rain. There were news-vendors who apparently had never left the curb. “There is something about our English folk,” he said, “magnificently calm. Something dogged. An obstinate resistance to excitement. They say little but they just carry on.”
BUT NOW THE AIR WAS SCREAMING!
A moment of blank expectation.
In an instant the whole area was alive with bursting bombs. Four — or was it five? — deafening explosions and blinding flashes about them and above them followed one another in close succession, and the ordered pavement before them became like a crater in eruption.
Mr. Parham had seen very little of the more violent side of warfare. During the first World War a certifiable weakness of the heart and his natural aptitudes had made him more serviceable on the home front. And now, peeping out of the eyes of the Lord Paramount, he was astounded at the grotesque variety of injury to human beings of which explosions are capable. Accustomed to study warfare through patriotic war films, he had supposed that there was a distinctive dignity about death in battle, that for the most part heroes who were slain threw up their arms and fell forward in so seemly a way as to conceal anything that might otherwise be derogatory to themselves or painful to the spectator. But these people who were killed in the Square displayed no such delicacy; perhaps because they were untrained civilians; they were torn to bits, mixed indifferently with masonry, and thrown about like rags and footballs and splashes of red mud. An old match seller who had been squatting on the stone curb, an old woman in a black bonnet, leapt up high into the air towards the Lord Paramount, spread out as if she were going to fly over him like a witch, and then incredibly flew to fragments, all her boxes of matches radiating out as though a gigantic foot had kicked right through her body at them. Her bonnet swept his hat off, and a box of matches and some wet stuff hit him. It wasn’t like any sort of decent event. It was pure nightmare — impure nightmare. It was an outrage on the ancient dignity of war.
And then he realized the column had been hit and was coming down. Almost solemnly it was coming down. It had been erect so long, and now, with a kind of rheumatic hesitation, it bent itself like a knee. It seemed to separate slowly into fragments. It seemed as though it were being lowered by invisible cords from the sky. There was even time to say things.
Never had Mrs. Pinchot seen him so magnificent.
He put an arm about her. He had meant to put his hand on her shoulder, but she was little and he embraced her head.
“Stay by me,” he said. He had time to say, “Trust me and trust God. Death cannot touch me until my work is done.”
Nelson turned over and fell stiffly and slantingly. He went, with the air of meeting an engagement, clean through the façade of the big insurance buildings on the Cockspur street side of the Square. About the Master and his secretary the bursting pavement jumped again, as the great masses of the column hit it and leapt upon it and lay still. The Lord Paramount was flung a yard or so, and staggered and got to his feet and saw Mrs. Pinchot on all fours. Then she too was up and running towards him with love and consternation in her face.
“You are covered with blood!” she cried. “You are covered with blood.”
“Not mine,” he said and reeled towards the streaming ruins of a fountain basin, and was suddenly sick and sick and sick.
She washed his face with her handkerchief and guided him towards a plateau of still level pavement outside the Golden Cross Hotel.
“It was the weakness of Nelson,” he said — for it was one of his standard remarks on such occasions.
“Nelson!” he repeated, his thoughts going off at a tangent, and he stared up into the empty air. “Good God!”
Hardly twenty feet of the pedestal remained.
And then: “High time we made our way to these new headquarters of Gerson’s. I wonder where that car can be hiding. Where is that car? Ssh! Those must be bombs again, bursting somewhere on the south side. Don’t listen to them.”
He realized that a number of distraught and dishevelled people were looking at him curiously. They regarded him with a critical expectation. They became suddenly quite numerous. Many of these faces were suspicious and disagreeable.
“I would gladly stay here and help with the wounded,” he said, “but my duty lies elsewhere.”
Men with Red Cross badges had appeared from nowhere and were searching among the wreckage. Injured people were beginning to crawl and groan.
“We must commandeer a car,” said the Lord Paramount. “Find some officers and commandeer a car. I must take you out of all this. We must get out of London to the headquarters as soon as possible. My place is there. We must find out where the car has gone. Gerson will know. We had better walk back to the War Office, perhaps, and start from there. Do not be afraid. Keep close to me. . . . Was that another bomb?”
Gerson was talking to him. They were in a different place. It might be they were already in the great Barnet dugout which was to be the new seat of government; a huge and monstrous cavern it was, at any rate; and they were discussing the next step that must be taken if the Empire, now so sorely stressed, so desperately threatened, was still to hack its way through to Victory. Overhead there rumbled and drummed an anti-aircraft barrage.
“If we listen to this propaganda of the American President’s,” said Gerson, “we are lost. People must not listen to it. It’s infectious — hallucination. Get on with the war before the rot comes. Get on with the war! It is now or never,” said Gerson.
His grim and desperate energy dominated the Lord Paramount. “Gas L,” he repeated, “Gas L. All Berlin in agony and then no more Berlin. Would they go on fighting after that? For all their new explosives.”
“I call God to witness,” said the Lord Paramount “that I have no mind for gas war.”
“War is war,” said Gerson.
“This is not the sort of war I want.”
Gerson’s never very respectful manner gave place to a snarl of irritation. “D’you think this sort of war is the sort of war I want?” he demanded. “Not a bit of it! It’s the sort of war these damned chemists and men of science have forced upon us. It’s a war made into a monster. Because someone failed to nip science in the bud a hundred years ago. They are doing their best to make war impossible. That’s their game. But so long as I live it shan’t be impossible whatever they do to it. I’ll see this blasted planet blown to bits first. I’ll see the last man stifled. What’s a world without war? The way to stop this infernal German bombing is to treat Berlin like a nest of wasps and KILL the place. And that’s what I want to set about doing now. But we can’t get the stuff in! Camelford and Woodcock procrastinate and obstruct. If you don’t deal with those two men in a day or so I shall deal with them myself, in the name of military necessity. I want to arrest them.”
“Arrest them,” said the Lord Paramount.
“And shoot them if necessary.”
“Shoot if necessary,” said the Lord Paramount . . . .
Everything seemed to be passing into Gerson’s hands. The Lord Paramount had to remind himself more and more frequently that the logic of war demanded this predominance of Gerson. So long as the war lasted. He began where statecraft ceased, and when he had done statecraft would again take up what he had left of the problems entrusted to him.
The Lord Paramount had a persuasion that Camelford and Sir Bussy had been arrested already and had escaped. Some time had elapsed — imperceptibly. Yes, they had been arrested and they had got away. Sir Bussy had shown Camelford how to get away.
Something obscured the Lord Paramount’s mind. Clouds floated before it. Voices that had nothing to do with the course of affairs sustained some kind of commentary. Events were no longer following one another with a proper amplitude of transition. He seemed to be passing in cinematograph fashion from scene to scene. A pursuit of Sir Bussy was in progress, Gerson was hunting him, but it was no longer clear where and how these events were unfolding.
Then it would seem that Sir Bussy had been discovered hiding in Norway. He had been kidnapped amazingly by Gerson’s agents and brought to Norfolk and shot. It was no time to be fussy about operations in neutral territory. And some rigorous yet indefinable necessity required that the Lord Paramount should go secretly at night to see Sir Bussy’s body. He was reminded of the heroic murder of Matteotti, of the still more heroic effacement of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon. It is necessary that one man should die for the people. This financial Ishmaelite had to be ended in his turn. The day had come for property also to come into the scheme of duty.
The Lord Paramount found himself descending from his automobile at the end of a long winding and bumpy lane that led down to the beach near Sheringham. Extravagantly like Napoleon he felt; he was even wearing a hat of the traditional pattern. He had to be muffled. He was muffled in a cloak of black velvet. The head lamps showed a whitewashed shed, a boat on a bank of shingle; beyond the breakers of an uneasy sea flashed white as they came out of the blue-gray indistinctness into the cone of lights. “This way, sir,” said a young officer and made his path more difficult by the officious flicking of an electric torch. The shingle was noisy underfoot.
On a plank, already loaded with shot to sink it into the unknown, and covered with a sheet, lay the body of Sir Bussy. For a moment the Lord Paramount stood beside it with his arms folded. The Dictatorship had lost its last internal enemy. Everyone had come to a halt now, and everything was silent except for the slow pulsing of the sea.
And in this fashion it was, thought the Lord Paramount, that their six years of association had to end. It had been impossible to incorporate this restless, acquisitive, innovating creature with the great processes of history; he had been incurably undisciplined and disintegrating, and at last it had become a plain struggle for existence between him and his kind, and the established institutions of our race. So long as he had lived he had seemed formidable, but now that his power was wrested from him, there was something pathetic and pitiful in his flimsy proportions. He was a little chap, a poor little fellow. And he had had his hospitably friendly, appealing side.
Why had he not listened to Mr. Parham? Why had he not sought his proper place in the scheme of things and learnt to cooperate and obey? Why had he pitted himself against history and perished as all who pit themselves against tradition must perish? The Lord Paramount stood by the little spherical protrusion of the sheet that veiled Sir Bussy’s head; Gerson stood at the feet. The Lord Paramount’s thoughts went from the dead to the living.
Had he really killed Sir Bussy, or had Gerson killed him?
What are the real and essential antagonisms of human life? Spite of all the ruthless tumult of events that had crowded upon the Lord Paramount, he had continued thinking. At the outset of his dictatorship, he had thought the main conflict in human affairs was the struggle of historical forms to maintain themselves against the skepticism, the disregard, and the incoherent enterprise of modern life. But was that indeed so? Had Sir Bussy been his real adversary? Or had his real adversary been the wider, more systematic intellectual alienations of Camelford? It was Camelford who had liberated Sir Bussy, had snatched him out of the influence of Mr. Parham. It was Camelford who had given the fundamental mysteries of Sir Bussy’s disposition a form of expression. Just as the Lord Paramount himself, out of the fears, prejudices, resistances, habits, loyalties, and conservative vigour of mankind, had been able to evoke the heroic insensitiveness of Gerson. If so, it was Sir Bussy and Gerson who were the vital forces of this affair, the actual powers, and he and Camelford were mere intellectualizers to this restlessness on the one hand and this obstinacy on the other. But why, if Sir Bussy embodied a fundamental human force, had it been so easy to kill him? It was absurd even to dream of killing a fundamental force. Had he indeed been killed so easily? A wedge of doubt invaded the mind of the Lord Paramount and spread out to colour all his thoughts.
“Uncover the face,” he said.
He motioned to the chauffeur to turn his lamps onto the white and shrunken visage.
Amazing yet inevitable came the confirmation of his doubts.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like him, but it is not him. Of course, Gerson, you will ALWAYS kill the wrong man. It is well I came to see with my own eyes.”
But Gerson was shameless.
“And now we’ve seen it’s the wrong one,” said Gerson, “it’s time we set about the right one — if the Empire is to get its Gas L in time to win this war.”
“I wonder who this is.”
“Any old chap who got in the way. Such things have to happen in wartime.”
The Lord Paramount’s reserves showed signs of breaking down. “But shall we ever get this stuff? Shall we ever overtake Camelford and Sir Bussy?”
“We got to,” said Gerson in a wrathful shout.
The Lord Paramount had the impression that he was again in the great dugout at Barnet. He was in one of the small apartments that opened out of the central cavern, a sort of dressing room. He was putting on a khaki uniform and preparing to start on a desperate expedition. A young subaltern assisted him timidly.
The Lord Paramount was excessively aware of Gerson’s voice storming down the passage. He was always storming now.
They were still in pursuit of Camelford and Sir Bussy, who were reported to be at those strange new chemical works at Cayme in Lyonesse. They had to be caught and compelled if need be at the point of a revolver, to subserve the political ideas from which they were attempting to escape. The issue whether the soldier or the man of science should rule the world had come to actual warfare. Strange Reality was escaping, and Tradition was hard in pursuit. Gerson and the Lord Paramount were to fly to Devonshire and then rush upon Cayme, “swift and sure as the leap of a tiger,” said Gerson. Then indeed, with the chemists captive and Gas L assured, the Empire could confront all the rest of the world with the alternative of submission or death.
The Lord Paramount adjusted the complex and difficult belt before a mirror. Then he stood still and stared at the reflection before him.
Where was the calm beauty of the Master Spirit?
The man he saw, he had seen in other mirrors ten thousand times before. It was the face, just falling short of strength and serenity by the subtle indications of peevishness and indecision, of the Senior Tutor of St. Simon’s. And those troubled eyes were Mr. Parham’s eyes. And the hair — he had never noted it before — was turning gray. He knew it had been getting thin, but now he saw it was getting gray. Merely Mr. Parham? Had he been dreaming of a Lord Paramount, and had there never been anyone else but himself in this adventurer? And what was this adventure? Was he recovering now from some fantastic intoxication?
With a start he realized that Gerson had come into the room and heard the clear-cut, even footsteps approach him. The organizer of victory came to the salute with a clash of accoutrements. “Everything is ready, sir,” he said imperatively.
Mr. Parham seemed to assent, but now he knew that he obeyed.
Like the damned of Swedenborg’s visions, he had come of his own accord to his own servitude.
The chauffeur stopped short at a word from Gerson. “Pull up by the wayside,” directed the General, “and try and look like engine trouble.”
He got out. “We will walk to the top of the hill. The fellow standing there against the sky is our scout. And over beyond is Cayme.”
The Lord Paramount obeyed in silence.
They were perhaps a couple of hundred yards from the crest. The sun was setting, a white blaze, which rimmed the line of the hill with iridescence. For an instant the Lord Paramount glanced back at the bleakness of the Cornish landscape, coldly golden, and then turned to the ascent.
“We shall see very little until this damned sun is down,” said Gerson. “But there is no hurry now.”
“An air scout,” said the Lord Paramount.
“Theirs. They keep it circling. And they have another out to sea. But the water is opaque enough, I hope, to hide our submarines. And besides, they keep pretty far out.”
“We have submarines?”
“Five. Six we had. But one is lost. All the coast has been played hokey with. The sea bed’s coming up. God knows how they’ve done it, but they’ve raised scores of square miles. Heaved it up somehow. Our submarine must have hit a lump or barrier — which ought not to have been there. They’ve just made all this Lyonesse of theirs out of nothing — to save paying decent prices to decent landowners. They bore down through it and take out minerals — minerals we’d give our eyes to get — that were hidden under the bottom of the sea.”
The Lord Paramount regarded the huge boss of stone to the right of them with a puzzled expression.
“I seem to remember this road — that rock that sticks up there and the way the road turns round it.”
“It goes to Penzance. Or it did.”
“That old disused tin mine we passed, that too seems familiar. Something odd about the double shaft. . . . I’ve never seen this coast since I was a young man. Then I tramped it with a knapsack. By Land’s End and along here and so on to Tintagel.”
“You’ll find it changed in a moment.”
The Lord Paramount made no answer.
“Now. We’re getting into view. Stroll easily. That fellow up there may be watching us. The evening’s as still and clear as crystal. No mist. Not a cloud. We could do with a little obscurity to-night.”
“Why have we no aeroplanes up?”
Something like contempt sounded in Gerson’s voice. “Because we want to take your friends out there by surprise.”
The Lord Paramount felt again that sense of insufficiency that had been troubling him so frequently during the last few days. He had asked a silly question. More and more was Gerson with his lucid technical capacity taking control of things. There was nothing more to be said, and in silence the Lord Paramount surveyed the view that had opened out before them. Gerson was still in control.
“We had better sit down on this bank among the heather. Don’t stand still and stare. It won’t do to seem even to be watching them.”
The land was changed indeed.
Cayme was unlike any town, any factory, any normal place that Mr. Parham had ever seen. For it was Mr. Parham’s eye that now regarded it. It sat up against the incandescent sky, broad, black, squat, like some monstrous new development of the battleship. It was a low, long battleship magnified by ten. Against the light it had no form nor detail, only a hard, long shape. Its vast shadow veiled a wedge of unassimilable detail, that might be a wilderness of streams and rich pools, in gloom and mystery. The land came out to this place, shining where it caught the light, or cut into blunt denticulations by long shadows, alternated triangles of darkness, wherever there was a rock or ridge to impede the light.
“But this was sea,” said Mr. Parham.
“This was sea.”
“And away there is still Land’s End.”
“Only it isn’t Land’s End any more. This runs right out.”
“I came along here I suppose somewhere — hard now to say exactly where — and I had Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur in my knapsack. And I— I was a young man then — I looked across at the sunset — a great clear sunset like this one — and I dreamt of the lost cities and palaces of Lyonesse until almost I could see them, like a mirage, glittering under the sun.”
“And Lyonesse is here, and it hasn’t got any cities or palaces or knights. And it doesn’t glitter. And instead of King Arthur and his Table Round, you’ve got a crew of Camelford’s men, brewing God knows what treason. . . . I wish I knew . . . . I wish I knew.”
Gerson sat in silence for a space, and then he talked again, almost as much to himself as to Mr. Parham.
“There they’ve got the stuff. They’ve got it; they’ve got everything. If we can wrench that place out of their hands suddenly — we have it all. I have men who can work it all right, given the stuff. Then we shall have poison gas to scare the world stiff. . . . And we’ll scare them. . . . But swift and sure like the pounce of a cat — we must get them down before they can lift a finger. They’ll blow the place to smithereens before they let us have it. Camelford has said as much. God knows what chemists are coming to! They didn’t dare say ‘No’ to a soldier in the last Great War.”
“These coasts have changed,” said Mr. Parham, “and the world has changed. And it seems to me tonight as if God himself had changed to something strange and dreadful.”
They sat in silence. The sun which had been a white blaze had sunk down until it touched the high line of the silhouette of Cayme, and its blinding glory had become only a blazing red disk.
“Tell me,” said Mr. Parham. “What are our plans?”
Gerson glanced sideways to be sure the scout was out of earshot.
“We have all the Gas L the Empire could produce before these fellows collared the material. Just about enough for this job and no more. Further on some of it lies along the road, disguised as barrels of tar. Down in the village there, which used to be a fishing village and which now grows vegetables, keeps cows, and takes in washing for Cayme, it is piled up as barrels of beer. We have cases and cylinders hidden among the rocks.”
“But where are our men?”
“At Bodmin, at Penzance, waiting for the dark with bicycles, and, oh! — there’s a good lot about here, though you don’t see them, hidden in ditches since last night, lying under heaps of dry heather, down in that wood we passed. Waiting for a noiseless rocket at one o’clock to-night. Each one ready for his job. Behind that first line is Burchell with men in every town from Plymouth to Exeter, all hanging about unobtrusively, ready to follow up. What a man he is! What energy! Like a boy, an immense clever boy. He wouldn’t let this happen without him. Would there were more like him!”
“And at one o’clock?”
“Quietly we shift the gas into the great ditch they have round that place, see our masks are adjusted, and let it loose.”
“They’ll wriggle a bit — blast ’em!”
“No more of them. And at dawn we go in with our gas masks on — and take possession. Like digging out a wasp’s nest.”
“Suppose the gas doesn’t work instantly — and they blow up in spite of us?”
“Then, my Lord Paramount, we are done. We’ll go back to find London selling us, and selling the Union Jack with us, to anyone who cares to buy. We’ll go back to find patriotism over and dead from China to Peru. We’ll go back to find lords and dictators, ten a penny. Or — if we respect ourselves — we won’t go back. But I think we can trust Gas L.”
Never had the Lord Paramount felt so utterly Mr. Parham. He looked about him at that evening, and it was a golden dome of warmth and stillness in which it was very good to be alive, and far off he heard some late lambs bleating and crying to the deep answers of their mothers.
“It’s quite possible the book of history will close with a bang,” said Gerson; “quite possible. About one o’clock tomorrow morning. We’ve done what we can. We’ve stuck like men to our own ideas. But for instance, Gas L is faintly visible, a thin blue-gray vapour. At night it may get past them — but if they see it before they sniff it . . . Or if they have an anti-gas . . .”
The General left the rest to Mr. Parham’s imagination.
“Does he keep up all night?” asked Mr. Parham indicating the slowly circling plane by a movement of his head.
“There are reliefs. For all we know, we are spotted now. For all we know, every bit of our little scheme is known. For all we know, we’re trying to kill a sleeping tiger with a pea shooter, and all we shall do is to wake it up.”
A long silence. The ever broadening and ever reddening dome of the sun seemed to be pouring its molten substance slowly and steadily into the mysterious black receptacle of Cayme.
“How still it is!” whispered Mr. Parham.
“That’s the damned thing about them,” said Gerson, betraying a certain irritability. “STILL! They never give a sign. These scientific men, these ‘moderns,’ as they call themselves, have never made a declaration or offered a deal a proper-minded man could consider. Only vague criticisms and pointless pacifism. Science has slipped out of our hands when we weren’t looking. It used to be subservient enough. Years ago we ought to have forbidden scientific study or scientific knowledge except to men under military discipline, and we ought to have put scientific discoverers under the Official Secrets Act. Then we should have had them under control. And perhaps their damned progress wouldn’t have gone on so fast. They’d have mumbled their rotten theories in a corner, and we could have treated them as a joke. And if we’d been more nippy about the traders and the money lenders we could have kept them trading respectfully, as they used to do. But we let the scientific men and the industrialists and the bankers all run about and get notions just as they pleased, and here they are, out of control, a gang of cosmopolitan conspirators with the mask off, actually intercepting munitions that are vital to the Empire and treating for peace with enemy countries on their own account. It’s kind of symbolical, sir, that we are here, conducting military operations by stealth, as it were — with even our uniforms planned to be invisible. . . . War ashamed of itself! . . . THEIR doing!”
And suddenly Gerson gave way to an outburst of the obscene, unmeaning blasphemies dear to simple souls the whole world over. He consigned men of science to the most unnatural experiences and the most unseemly behaviour. He raged against the vanity of intelligence and the vileness of mental presumption.
The last acutely bright red line of the sun’s disk vanished abruptly from above the black crest of Cayme as though someone had suddenly thought of it and drawn it into the building. Minute cirrus clouds that had hitherto been invisible revealed themselves as faint streaks of gold in the sky and slowly faded again. Mr. Parham remained sitting very still. General Gerson turned to the waiting scout with directions for him to get the rugs and hamper out of the car and send it on to Penzance. He and the Lord Paramount would wait here among the stones until it was time to begin the attack.
It seemed to Mr. Parham that the time passed very quickly before the attack began. An intense blue evening with a westward glow deepened through twilight into a starry night, which had fewest stars and a brighter edge to the northwest. He supped from the hamper and lay under a rock while Gerson, imitating and answering the sounds of improbable birds, made mysterious visits along the ridge and athwart the moor. Then when darkness came they started off, after much whispering and creeping about, blundering down the long slopes towards the erstwhile cliffs that marked the boundary of the old land and the new. Then a crawling forward with great circumspection and every possible precaution against noise. Then abruptly the startling discovery that he was not alone with Gerson, but one of a numerous line of furtive figures and groups, dimly visible against the sky line, some of them free-handed and some bearing burthens.
Gerson handed Mr. Parham a gas mask. “Don’t make any mistakes with it,” he said. “It’s Gas L. Get the edge SUCKING against your face.”
An interval of waiting in which one heard one’s heart beating, and then the noiseless rocket like a meteor across the sky. Another interval for which there was no measure, and then the stealthy release of the Gas L.
The Gas L was plainly visible; it was as if it had a sort of gray luminosity. It crept along the ground and then rose slowly like swans’ necks, like snakes, like the letter S, or like the top of a manuscript L, craning forward and down again towards the looming masses, now close at hand, of the mysteries of Cayme. It reached them and seemed to feel its way up their steep sides and slowly, slowly reached the crest of the walls and poured over . . . .
“At dawn we go in,” said Gerson, his voice made Lilliputian by his mask. “At dawn we go in.”
Mr. Parham shivered and made no reply.
He felt cramp for a time, he was tickled and worried by his mask about his ears, and perhaps he slept, for at any rate, the hours again passed very quickly, and almost abruptly the scene was warm with the sunrise. Seen closely and with the light of morning on them, the walls of Cayme were revealed as a hard greenish substance with a surface like dulled metal, and they rose, slanting backwards out of this ditch without any windows or loopholes, towards the sky. The ditch was unexpectedly deep; it made one a little giddy to come upon it suddenly, and in it there was no water at all and no bottom visible, but very far down something cloudy, a sort of heavy yellowish smoke that writhed and curled about and did not rise. One had to move cautiously and peer because of the difficulty of seeing in a gas mask. One saw in a series of clipped pictures. The attack was lined out all along the edge of the ditch, a series of slouching cynocephali with snouted white heads who turned about with cautious and noiseless movements and nosed and made gestures one to the other. Everyone carried a rifle or a revolver in his hand.
For a time the line was like a slack string along the edge of the ditch, uncertain of its next step. Then some common impulse had turned them all to the left, and they were following the edge of the ditch in Indian file as if to seek some point at which to cross it. The wall bent away presently, and rounding the bend, Mr. Parham came into view of a narrow drawbridge of open metalwork, about the end of which a number of the assailants had halted in a cluster.
Leadership he realized was needed.
He found himself with Gerson at the foot of the drawbridge and the others standing as if awaiting a decision. At the far end of that slender strip of open ironwork was an open doorway without a door. It gave into the darkness of an unlit passage. The nothingness in that passage was extraordinary. Not a living thing was to be seen and not a sound broke the immense silence of Cayme. Mr. Parham wished that the word “mouse-trap” had not come into his head.
“Well?” came faintly from within Gerson’s mask.
“If they are dead it is all right for us,” said Mr. Parham. “But if they are not dead, then it does not matter what we do, for even here we are completely in their power. One rifleman up there could pick us off one by one.”
“Why did they leave that door open?” asked Gerson.
“I don’t know. But I feel I have to go in.”
“All or nothing,” said Gerson.
He turned and gestured for six men to accompany them.
Mr. Parham in a state that was neither abject nor arrogant, a new Mr. Parham, puzzled and filled with wonder and dread, crossed the little bridge. He entered the passage. Gerson paused behind him to scrutinize the frame of the doorway. He made a comment that was inaudible. He looked up and dodged suddenly.
A door guided by grooves fell swiftly, stopped short with a metallic impact, and cut them off from the daylight and all support.
Gerson swore and tried to shove it up again. Mr. Parham saw the thing happen without astonishment and remained quite still. They were not in darkness. A few small electric lamps seemed to have been switched on by the falling door.
Mr. Parham was astounded by his own fatalism. He who had conceived he held the mastery of the world in his shapely hand was now an almost apathetic spectator of his own frustration. He saw Gerson battering at the trap with a feeling — it was almost akin to gratified malice.
Gerson, he realized, had always been the disagreeable aspect of his mastery; always Gerson had spoilt things; always he had touched the stages of the fine romance of this adventure with an unanticipated cruelty and horror. Mr. Parham was traditional and ready to be traditional, but Gerson he saw now was ancestral and archaic. Mr. Parham realized now as he watched those simian fists hammering with furious gestures on the thick metal and pausing for the answering blows of the men outside, that he had come at last to detest Gerson almost as much as he detested Sir Bussy. He knew that this violence was futile, and he despised it as much as he hated it.
He put out his arm and touched Gerson.
Gerson sprang round, manifestly in a state of intense irritation and his mask did not completely stifle his interrogative snarl.
“That door may have fallen automatically,” said Mr. Parham. “For all we know yet — everyone here may be dead.”
Gerson thought and then nodded and made a gesture for Mr. Parham to precede him.
“And indeed,” said Mr. Parham to himself, “for all I know they may be dead.”
In another moment he knew better. The little passage opened out into what seemed to be a large circular space and at the further side of this they saw two figures, unmasked and regarding them. Gas L was as if it had never been. They were men clad in the white overalls dear to chemists and surgeons. They made signs as if for Mr. Parham and Gerson to move softly. They pointed to something hidden as yet from the newcomers. Their forms were a little distorted and their gestures a little exaggerated by some intervening transparent substance.
So they had had an anti-gas for Gas L.
Mr. Parham advanced, and Gerson came close behind.
They emerged upon a circular gallery.
The place made Mr. Parham think of the inside of the reservoir of a coal-gas works. Such a place would surely look like this place if it had electric lights inside it. It was large — it might have been a hundred yards in diameter — and shaped like a drum. The little gallery on which they stood ran round it, and in the central pit and occupying most of it was a huge glass bulb, a vast retort, in which a greenish-white liquid was boiling and bubbling. The shining curvature of the glass rose before them, reflecting them faintly with a certain distortion. It shortened and broadened them. It robbed Mr. Parham of all his natural dignity and made Gerson look incredibly squat and filthy and evil. The liquid in the retort was not seething equally; it was traversed and torn here and there by spurts and eddies of commotion; here it was mysteriously still and smooth, here with a wild rush came a drive of bursting bubbles. They stormed across the surface and raised eruptive mounds of ebullient liquid. And over the whole whirled and danced wisps of filmy vapour. But this held Mr. Parham’s attention only for a moment. He realized that he was in the presence of Camelford and Sir Bussy, and he forgot everything else in that confrontation.
Both these men were dressed in the same white overalls as the assistants across on the other side of the rotunda. But they had the air of having expected Mr. Parham and his companion. They seemed to have been coming to meet them.
With a gesture of irritation Mr. Parham wrenched off his mask and Gerson followed suit.
“The Lord Paramount of Britain,” said Camelford and bowed with manifest irony.
“Looks uncommonly like my old friend Parham,” said Sir Bussy.
“This other gentleman, if I’m not mistaken,” said Camelford, “is that master strategist, General Gerson.”
“It’s a loyal Englishman, Mr. Camelford,” said the General, “who has done his best to save a great empire.”
“You lost a good lot of it to begin with,” said Camelford.
“Because we were shot at from behind.”
“How’s your war going now?”
“The war’s gone to pieces. Mutiny. Disorder. London is in revolt and crying for peace. American peace propaganda has done us in- with treason at the back of us. It’s the story of the poor old Kaiser over again. Beaten on the home front. No fair soldiering. If we could have made enough of Gas L— if we could have got all we had reasonably thought we should get . . . God! There was nothing wrong in my plans. Except that you’ve made a corner in Gas L. While we fought the enemy, you, you dirty sneaks, cornered our munitions. And now you’ve got us, and may Hell take you for it!”
Camelford turned to Sir Bussy. “He speaks with heat, but I think we may admit his facts are sound. You’ve always had the buying-up instinct.” He smiled blandly at Gerson. “We’ve got the stuff, as you say. We don’t pretend we haven’t. Sir Bussy has been amazing. But it isn’t for sale. We thought it a pity to waste it on Gas L, and so we are making use of it in another way. Our way.”
A faint memory of the Lord Paramount reappeared in Mr. Parham. He made the old familiar gesture with his hand. “I want that material,” he said. “I demand it.”
Sir Bussy’s nether lip dropped. “What for?” he asked.
“To save the Empire. To save the world from chaos.”
“There ain’t going to be no chaos,” misquoted Sir Bussy.
“What are you going to do? Where do you think you are driving? Are you going to sit here and barter your stolen goods to the highest bidder?”
“Cornered, perhaps, but not stolen,” Sir Bussy corrected.
“We’re going to take control,” said Sir Bussy.
“YOU! A handful of financial and technical scoundrels!”
“WE’RE not going to take control,” said Camelford, “if Sir Bussy will forgive me. Something else HAS taken control. And there are more men coming into this business of creation than you or Gerson dream.”
Mr. Parham looked about him, at the smooth circular walls about them, at the monstrous glass retort, at the distant figures of the silent attendants in white. Their number had now increased to six, and they all stood watching noiselessly. It was extraordinarily still and large and clean and — queer. It was not like war. It was not like government. It was not like industrialism. It was profoundly unhistorical. It was the new thing coming. And at his side stood Gerson. He, on the contrary, was like all the heroes of all the faint hopes that have ever succeeded. That never very attractive little figure in its uniform of soiled khaki suffered enormously by the contrast, looked brutish, looked earthy. Crawling through the darkness over rough ground usually given over to rabbits and an occasional goat had not improved his never very meticulous appearance, and his native physical vigour, the natural strength of his dark hair, made it very evident that he had had no time for a shave for a couple of days.
Mr. Parham, who had always had a reasonable care for his own costume, experienced a wave of profound disloyalty to his sturdy colleague. This latter looked a pig of a creature, he looked as toughly combative with anything and everything as a netted boar. He was more than half an animal. Yet surely for all his savagery he had the inflexible loyalty of a great hero, he had a heart of ruthless, inexorable gold. Surely?
Mr. Parham’s thoughts came back to the last sentence Camelford had uttered and to this strange place into which he and Gerson had blundered. “Something else had taken control?” Not Gerson but something else? What was the issue that had brought them to this confrontation? Gerson hot and dirty, versus this Something Else? Which was not this group nor that group. Not the nation nor the Empire. Not America nor Europe. Which was a sort of emanation from the released and freely acting intelligence of mankind.
A trace of the Master Spirit was still in Mr. Parham’s manner, but behind the mask of his resolute bearing he felt his mind had fallen open and lay unprotected against new strange heretical assailants.
“What is your aim here?” he asked. “What do you imagine you are doing? My ideas are still the common ideas of humanity. They are the forces of history. They are the driving power that has brought civilization to its present pass. Tradition. Discipline. Obedience. What are your ideas? Why have you raised this land out of the sea and made this place?”
“We never raised this land out of the sea,” said Camelford. “We never made this place. And we learn our aim as we get to it.”
“Then who the devil —?” said Gerson.
“This place came. No single man planned it. No single man foresaw it. It appeared. As all the great inventions have appeared. Not out of individuals but out of the mind of man. This land with its hidden stores of strange minerals lay under the sea, ready for anyone who fulfilled the conditions fixed for raising it. And these works and the gas we are making, those also depended on the fulfilling of conditions. We individual men of science and men of enterprise do no more than observe the one supreme condition — which is that the human intelligence should have fair play. Now that these things have realized themselves, we look for the next thing we have to do.”
“Ugh,” said Gerson.
“The old face of human life is passing away. In that obedient fashion to which our science has trained us we observe the coming of the new. The age of war and conquest is over. War is done with, but with war a thousand other once vital things are done with also. The years of restraint are at an end. The patriots and warriors and masters, the flags and the nations, have to be rounded up now and put away forever. Powers and empires are over. The loyalties that served them must die. They matter no more. They become a monstrous danger. What was it Sir Bussy said? ‘The ideas of an old buck rabbit in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.’ Shut the book of national conflicts and conquests now and hand it over to the psychologists. We are the workers of a new dawn. Men of no nation. Men without traditions. Men who look forward and not back. Men who have realized the will and the intelligence that we obey and possess in common. Our race has to organize the whole world now, a field for this creative energy that flows through and uses and guides us.”
“But you are brewing a gas here!” said Mr. Parham. “It is a gas — a dangerous gas. What is it?”
“It takes some brewing. If a crack in that retort let in the air — well, somewhere else this thing would have to begin over again. Here it would be finished. This stuff you see here is only a stage in a long string of processes. Before our product is ready to use there have to be corrosive and destructive phases. It is unavoidable that there should be these phases of corrosion and destruction. What is adventure if it has no danger? But when we have done, the gas we shall have here will not be a poison gas at all. Instead we shall have a vapour to enter into blood and nerve and brain and clean the mind of man as it has never been cleaned before. It will allow his brain, so clogged and stifled still by old rubbish, so poisoned and cramped and crippled, to free itself from all that holds it back now from apprehending and willing to the utmost limits of its possibility. And that points to a new world quite different from the world to which your mind is adapted. A world beyond your dreaming. You don’t begin to imagine yet a tithe of the things a liberated human brain can do. All your poor old values will be mislaid and forgotten. Your kingdoms and empires, your morals and rights, all you find so lovely and splendid, the heroism and sacrifices of battlefields, your dreams of lordship, every romantic thing, the devotion of servants, the subjugation of women, and the deception of children — all the complex rigmaroles of your old world will be washed out of men’s thoughts. We are brewing a new morality here and a new temerity. Instead of distrusting each other, killing each other, competing with and enslaving and consuming one another, we go on to a world of equals, working together under the guidance of realized fact, for ends too high for your imagination . . . .”
“But this is the voice of Satan himself,” interrupted Mr. Parham. “This is the Sin of Pride defying Heaven. This is Babel come again.”
“No,” said Camelford, and it seemed to Mr. Parham that he began to grow larger and tower over his hearers. “It is the way of escape from our narrow selves. Forward to the new. Cling to this traditionalism of yours a little longer, cling still to what YOU call history, with all these new powers and possibilities we are pressing into your hands — and there can be only one end — Catastrophe.”
The word Catastrophe reverberated in Mr. Parham’s mind. Then his attention was caught and riveted on Gerson’s attitude. The General’s one serviceable eye, dilated and intent, was fixed on Camelford, his lips were pressed together, his bulldog face was set in an expression of stern indignation. A deep Indian red had invaded his complexion. He was rigid except that his right arm was moving very slowly. His hand gripped the butt of his revolver and was tightening upon it and drawing it out.
A strange conflict prevailed in Mr. Parham’s mind. He found this talk of Camelford’s antagonistic and hateful but he did not want to interrupt it, he wanted to hear the man out; above all, he did not want to have the talk interrupted by Gerson in Gerson’s fashion.
And besides, what was Gerson doing here? He had not been asked to this party. But was it a party? This was not a dinner party. It was a séance. But no! What was it? Where were we? Cayme?
Within the now frightfully confused soul of Mr. Parham intellectuality grappled with reaction. Not yet, at any rate, must things come to this. He made a weak movement of his hand as if in restraint of Gerson’s intention.
Instantly Gerson had whipped out his weapon. “Stand off,” he said in an aside to Parham, and then to Camelford, “Hands up!”
Camelford did not seem to realize his danger. “Put that old thing up,” he said. “Give it to me. You’ll break something.”
He came, hand out, towards Gerson.
“Keep back!” said Gerson. “I’ll show you if this sort of thing is over. It’s only beginning. I’m the real Lord Paramount. Force and straight shooting. Do you think I care a damn for your gas or you? Catastrophe! A fig for your old catastrophe! Which is always coming and never comes. . . . Hands up, I tell you. Put up your hands, you damned fool! STOP!”
He fired. Then very swiftly the blue steel barrel under Mr. Parham’s nose sought Sir Bussy.
Vainly. Gerson’s shot hit the metal door that closed upon that elusive being. Mr. Parham felt an instant pang of exasperation with both these uncontrollable spirits. He still wanted Camelford to go on. His mind flashed back to Camelford. But Camelford was staggering with his hand on his throat.
Then it was catastrophe, as Camelford had said.
A crash and a splintering of glass. Camelford had fallen through the great glass retort, carrying down a transparent shattering triangle, had splashed into the liquid and now lay far below, moving convulsively on the curve of the nether glass. For a moment the air about them was full of ascendant streamers of vapour made visible as they changed to green and mingled with the air. They eddied and whirled. They spun faster and faster.
Gerson had turned his weapon upon Parham. “You too! YOU to talk of war! With the wits of a prig and the guts of a parasite! Get out of my world!”
The vituperating mouth hung open arrested. No shot came.
But now everything was moving very swiftly. One last flash of frantic perception closed the story. The rotunda yawned open as though some mighty hand had wrenched it in two, and through the separating halves of the roof appeared the warm glow of sunrise. A universe of sound pressed upon and burst the drums of Mr. Parham’s ears. An immense explosion which seemed to have been going on for some moments caught him and lifted him backward and upward at an incredible speed, and Gerson, suddenly flat and bloody, flashed by, seemed to be drawn out longer and longer until he was only a thread of scarlet and khaki, and so vanished slanting up the sky, with his revolver spinning preposterously after him . . . .
The world and all things in it vanished in a flash of blinding light.
The word “extinction” sang like a flying spark through the disintegrating brain of Mr. Parham. Darkness should have swallowed up that flying spark, but instead it gave place to other sparks, brighter and larger. “Another life or extinction? Another life or extinction?”
With a sort of amazement Mr. Parham realized that experience was not at an end for him. He was still something, something that felt and thought. And he was somewhere.
Heaven or hell? Heaven or hell?
It must be hell, he thought, surely, for it was pervaded by the voice of Sir Titus Knowles, if one could call that harsh, vindictive snarling sound a voice. The very voice of Gerson. Hell — and in the company of Sir Titus! But surely hell would be something fuliginous, and this was a clear white blaze.
The words of Sir Titus became distinct. “GOT you!” he bawled. “GOT you! There’s the ectoplasm! There’s the mighty visitant’s face! Painted bladder, as I said. Clever chap, but I’ve got you. Sham dead if you like for as long as you like, but I tell you the game is up.”
It was the upstairs room in Carfex House, and Carnac Williams was lying in a dishevelled heap upon the floor. Hereward Jackson was holding back Knowles, who was straining out his leg to kick the motionless body.
Mr. Parham staggered up from his armchair and found Sir Bussy doing likewise. Sir Bussy had the flushed face of one roused suddenly from sleep. “What the devil?” he demanded.
“I don’t understand,” said Mr. Parham.
“Exposure!” panted Sir Titus triumphantly and tried another kick.
“A foul exposure, anyhow,” said Hereward Jackson and pushed him back from his exhausted victim. “Spare the poor devil!”
“Le’ go!” cried Sir Titus —
A manservant had appeared and was respectfully intervening between Sir Titus and Hereward Jackson. Another came to the assistance of Carnac Williams.
A tremendous wrangle began . . . .
“Gaw!” said Sir Bussy when it was all over.
“I’m going to walk up to Claridge’s,” said Sir Bussy.
“This affair has left me stuffy. You go that way?”
“As far as Pontingale Street, yes.”
“Come on to Claridge’s. My nieces are having a great dance there. . . . That ectoplasm fairly turned me sick. . . . I’ve done with this spook business for good and all.”
“I always wanted to keep out of it,” said Mr. Parham.
The two men set out side by side, and for a time each pursued his own thoughts. Sir Bussy’s led him apparently to some conclusion, for suddenly he said, “Gaw”— as if he tapped a nail on the head.
“Parham, were you awake all through that séance?”
“No. I was bored. I fell asleep.”
“I fell asleep.” Sir Bussy reflected. “These séances make you sleep — and dream. That’s the trick of them.”
Mr. Parham looked at his companion, startled. Had he too dreamt? And what had he dreamt?
“I dreamt about the things those fellows, Camelford and Hamp, were saying the other night.”
“Curious!” said Mr. Parham, but he felt the thing was much more curious than his voice betrayed. What if they had had the same dream?
“I seemed to see their arguments in a sort of realized kind of way.”
How poor the man’s powers of expression!
“You and I were on opposite sides,” he added. “Daggers drawn.”
“I hope not.”
“There was a war. Gaw! I can’t tell you. Such a war! It was like trying to plug a burst steam pipe.” Sir Bussy left his hearer to imagine what that meant. And Mr. Parham was able to imagine.
“I cornered the chemicals,” said Sir Bussy. “I and Camelford. We kind of held it up. We did our best. But at last the natural lunacy in things got loose and — everything seemed to blow to pieces. There was a nasty little toad of a sojer. BANG!”
“That was the waking up?”
“That was the waking up.”
Then Sir Bussy went off at a tangent. “We rich men — I mean we big business people — we’ve been backing the wrong horse. We’ve been afraid of Bogey Bolshevik and all the new things, and damn it! it’s the OLD things that mean to bust up affairs. We’re new things ourselves. What did J. C. say? No good putting new wine in old bottles. . . . The world’s rising and splashing over. The old notions and boundaries won’t hold it. . . . I wish I could describe my dream to you. Extraordinary it was. And you were in it somehow all through. . . . And Camelford. . . . Hamp was American ambassador. Crazy, it was . . . .”
Now this was getting more and more remarkable. But no — it was not the same dream — similar, perhaps. It was impossible that it could have been the same . . . .
A dream, as everyone knows, can happen with incredible rapidity. It may all have happened in a second. The sounds of Sir Titus Knowles turning on lights and bumping about with the medium and snarling at him had no doubt provided the gunfire and flashes and evoked warlike images in both their awakening minds. And the rest had arisen from what lay ready in their antagonistic attitudes.
Sir Bussy went on with conviction: “If we don’t see to it, these Old Institutions of yours and all that — these old things that ought to be cleaned up and put away now — will upset the whole human apple cart — like some crazy old granny murdering a child. Foreign offices, war offices, sovereignty, and clutter like that. Bloody clutter. Bloodstained clutter. All that I got as clear as day. They can’t hold things any longer. They’ve got to be superannuated, shoved away in the attic. I didn’t realize. We’ve got to do something about it soon. Damn soon. Before another smash. We new people. We’ve just floated about getting rich and doing nothing about it. . . . Buying and selling and amalgamating and monopolizing isn’t enough. The worst thing in life is to have power and not use it to the full. . . . There wasn’t a thing in my nightmare that might not happen.”
Mr. Parham waited for what might come next. It was extraordinary, this parallelism, but still his reason insisted they could not have had the same identical dream.
“Was there,” he said, “by any chance, a sort of Lord — Lord Protector in your dream?”
“No,” said Sir Bussy. “There was just a damned pigheaded patriotic imperial government and a war. Come to think of it, there was something — a sort of dictatorship. They put Labour out of business. I thought the chap was Amery. A sort of lofty Amery. Amery drawn out elegant — if you understand me. He didn’t amount to much. What mattered was the ideas behind him.”
“And where did I come in?”
There was a catch in Mr. Parham’s breath.
“You were on the side of the government and we argued. You were for the war. In this dream I seemed always to be meeting you and arguing. It made it very real. You were some sort of official. We kept on arguing. Even when the bombs were bursting and they tried to shoot me.”
Mr. Parham was to a certain extent relieved. Not completely but sufficiently. There had been a dream, evidently, a similar dream; a clearly similar dream. It is a distinctive feature of the séance condition that people should have similar dreams; but his dream and Sir Bussy’s had not been the same dream. Not exactly the same dream. They had visualized the expectation of a possible war that haunted both their minds, but each in his own fashion — each with his own distinctive personal reference. That was it. The brief and tragic (and possibly slightly absurd) reign of Mr. Parham as Lord Paramount could be locked forever in his own breast.
But what was Sir Bussy saying?
He had been telling something of his dream that Mr. Parham had missed.
“We’ve got to give people a juster idea of what is going on and give it ’em quick. Or they’ll fall into unutterable smash-up. Schools — you can’t. You can’t get the necessary QUALITY in teachers. Universities lock themselves against us. Yes, they do. We’ve got to snatch the new generation out of the hands of doddering prigs and pedants and tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em. Catch the oversplash of life. In new ideas, in new organizations. The way out is through books, newspapers, print, talk. . . . ‘Light, more light,’ as old Gutty said.” (Did he mean Goethe?)
“I’m coming into the newspaper world, Parham, I tell you. You’ve often suggested it, and here I am doing as you said. You know a thing or two. This sort of war drift can only BE stopped by a big push the other way. Bigger than anything done so far. Crowds of people in earnest. The Big Push for the new world! What of a big Sunday paper — that’s the day they read — to give ’em science, give them the drift and meaning of the new world that — was it Camelford said it? — the new world that’s trying to get born. . . . Or was it that chap from Geneva? . . . Warn them how Granny still mutters and messes about with the knives. . . . A great big powerful paper.”
At these words a queer irrational excitement made Mr. Parham tingle from head to foot. His sense of antagonism to Sir Bussy faded and vanished. Hopes long cherished and long suppressed arose in him with such a strength and violence that his orientation was lost. He could see this only as one thing, a proposal to himself. The proposal was coming in a manner he had never thought of, it was coming with a strangely twisted look, but surely it was coming. He was going to have his paper. At last. He might have to take rather a different line from the one he would have preferred before his dream, but his dream had twisted and turned him about a lot, and his awakening still more. And anyhow — it was a paper!
“Isn’t a Saturday weekly perhaps a better medium?” he asked in a strained, ill-controlled voice. “Smaller circulation, perhaps, but more real influence.”
“No, I want this paper to go out to the main public by the hundred thousand, I want to go behind all the clever fellows. They cut no ice. I want to go out with pictures and vulgar noise and all that, and tell ’em, and tell ’em and tell ’em, week after week, that these old things of yours are played out and dangerous and — oh, damnable!”
“THESE OLD THINGS OF YOURS?” Something chill blew upon Mr. Parham. But still the poor desperate soul hung on. For six expectant years he had desired this thing.
“I don’t quite see myself doing that,” he said. “I’m not a Garvin, you know. I doubt if one can be both copious and fine.”
Sir Bussy stopped short and regarded his companion with amazement, his mouth askew, for a couple of seconds or more. “Gaw!” he said at last. “I wasn’t thinking of YOU.”
Mr. Parham was now very pale. The incredible was happening. His mind refused to accept it. “But the paper!” he gasped.
“I’ll have to do it with the right sort of fellows,” said Sir Bussy, speaking slowly. “It would be up against every damned thing you are.”
He was staring at Mr. Parham in manifest amazement. As though he realized something for the first time. Six years they had been together, and never had it entered his head that the ideal editor of anything was Mr. Parham. And he meant, he really meant, this illiterate Cockney! to conduct his paper himself. Out of a dream he had got this crazy confidence. Some fantastic dream in the heavy and charged atmosphere of that séance. That infernal séance! That ten thousand times accursed séance! It had put everything awry. It had shattered everything. It had been a vat of mental fermentation. Out of its tedious tensions these hypnotic revelations had arisen. It had dispersed the decent superficial controls of both their minds and laid bare things that should never have been laid bare. It had revealed the roots of their imaginations. It had exposed the irreconcilable. How true and sound had been the instincts of Mr. Parham, when he had resisted the resort to these darkened chambers and these irrational expansions of expectation which are the inevitable consequences of séance conditions!
A paper — a great paper, financed by Sir Bussy! And not to be his! A paper AGAINST him!
Six years wasted! Slights! Humiliations! Irritations! Tailors’ bills!
Never in his life had he screamed, but now he was near screaming. He felt with his fingers inside his collar and had no word to say. Something had broken within him. It was the back of that poor weary camel of hope which for six long years had carried him so far and by such winding tracks, uphill and downhill, across great spaces, into strange continents, in pursuit of Sir Bussy.
They stopped short at the corner of Pontingale Street. Mr. Parham glared, speechless, at his companion. Here indeed their ways diverged.
“But come on,” said Sir Bussy. “It’s hardly midnight yet. Come on and see if my nieces aren’t setting Claridge’s afire. Everyone will be there — drabs and duchesses — Gaby — everybody.”
For the first time in their relationship Mr. Parham declined an invitation. “NO,” he said, recovering the power of speech.
Sir Bussy never took a refusal without a struggle. “Oh, COME!” he said.
Mr. Parham shook his head. His soul was now brimming over with hate for this bilking, vulgar little scoundrel, this treacherous and incurable antagonist. His hate may have looked out of his eyes. They may have revealed the spit of devil within the don. For the first time, perhaps, in this long intercourse Sir Bussy may have seen all that Mr. Parham could feel about him.
For twenty seconds of stark revelation the two men confronted each other, and then Mr. Parham, recovering his discretion, was catching his soul back from its windows and drawing down the blinds. But Sir Bussy did not repeat his invitation to Claridge’s.
“Gaw,” he said, and turned away towards Berkeley Square. He did not even say “Good-night.”
Never before had Mr. Parham heard a Gaw so fraught with derision and dismissal. It was an entirely unanswerable Gaw. It was abandonment.
For a minute, perhaps, he stood quite still as Sir Bussy receded. Then slowly, almost submissively, he turned his face towards his lodging in Pontingale Street.
It seemed to Mr. Parham that all reality had deserted him. Not only had Sir Bussy gone off with all his dearest hopes, but it was as if his own substance had gone from him also. Within, the late Lord Paramount was nothing now but a vacuum, a cavernous nothingness craving for reassurance.
Had he no future? Some day, perhaps, when old Waterham died — if ever that old bit of pemmican did die — the Mastership of St. Simon’s. That — and a pose of smiling disdain. With a little acid in the smile.
His mind swayed uncertainly and then came round with the quivering decision of a compass needle towards the dusky comfort and intimacy, the limitless understanding and sympathy of little Mrs. Pinchot. She would understand him. She would understand. Even if all that had made history for him went to the dust destructor, even if a new upstart history that took no heed of Princes and Powers, Persons and Policies and was all compact of biology, economics and suchlike innovations, ruled the earth in its stead. He knew she would understand — whatever there was to understand, and see it, whatever it was, in a light that would sustain and help him.
True indeed that the chief proofs of her devotion and understanding had come to him in this dream, but there is an element of revelation in every dream, an element of good in every disaster.
Happily he had her telephone number . . . .
And so, showing a weary back to us, with his evening hat on the back of his head, our deflated publicist recedes up Pontingale Street, recedes with all his vanities, his stores of erudition, his dear preposterous generalizations, his personified nations and all his obsolescent paraphernalia of scholarly political wisdom, so feebly foolish in their substance and so hideously disastrous in their possible consequences, and his author, who has come to feel a curious unreasonable affection for him, must needs bid him a reluctant farewell.
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15