Half-way down the stairs Mrs. Pentridge and Oliver Doncaster began to realize that someone was knocking, loudly and continuously, at the door. But the spectacle of Mrs. Ferguson in front of them, progressing, in the dressing gown which she had put on, from stair to stair with an alertness which her age, to say nothing of her paralysis, would have seemed to forbid, so occupied and distracted them that it was with reluctance that Mrs. Pentridge at last rushed to open, and with delight that she said, hastily returning, “It’s for you, sir.”
“Eh?” said Oliver, “me? O nonsense! O damn!” He remembered the lunatic who wanted the stone, and strode across. “Hallo,” he said, “O it is you! Well, yes; yes, I’m sorry, but we’re in a bit of a confusion just now owing to a paralyzed old lady suddenly skipping like the high hills. Could you wait a few minutes or go and have a drink or something?”
“No, I couldn’t,” Sheldrake said. “You’ve made me come all this way and given me all this trouble, and now you talk to me about an old woman. An old woman won’t stop you giving me my stone.”
“By the way, what did I do with it?” Doncaster asked vaguely. “I know I had it a few minutes ago. Now what — I remember, I was showing it to Mrs. Ferguson when she began to curvet. I wonder if she dropped it somewhere.”
Sheldrake swore under his breath, then ceased as an incredible idea came into his mind. “Who’s Mrs. Ferguson?” he asked.
“Mrs. Ferguson is my landlady’s mother,” Doncaster said. “Who having been in bed to my knowledge since just before I came last year is now jazzing like a two-year-old. Peep round the door. Well, you don’t suppose I’m going to interrupt her by asking for my — I mean your — at least I mean you said your — pebble, do you? Bless her, she’s like a child at a Sunday school treat.”
Sheldrake became more and more uneasy. If this infernal old woman — if the Stone could cure — if it got about — “Look here,” he said quite untruly to Oliver, “I’ve got to get on to London and I want to take my property with me. A joke’s a joke, but —”
“And a jubilee’s a jubilee,” Oliver said. “Still, I see your point. Well, wait a minute — Good heavens, she’s going out.” Mrs. Ferguson indeed was coming straight to the door.
When she reached it Oliver pulled Sheldrake aside. “Still feeling better, Mrs, Ferguson?” he asked.
“Much better, thank you, Sir,” the old lady said. “But I feel as if I could do with a little fresh air, and if it looked a nice evening, I was thinking I’d just pop along and see my sister Annie. I haven’t seen much of her this year owing to her asthma and my not being able to get out. Mary, my dear,” she added to Mrs. Pentridge, “I think I’ll dress.”
“O mother,” said Mrs, Pentridge, “do you think you ought to go out? Suppose you were taken bad again?”
Mrs. Ferguson smiled serenely. “I shan’t be taken bad,” she said, “I never felt better in all my life. And I owe it all to you, Mr. Doncaster,” she added.
“Me?” said the surprised Oliver.
“I felt the strength just pouring into me from that stone you gave me, Sir,” Mrs. Ferguson assured him. “I’ve got it tight. You don’t want it back this minute, do you, Sir?”
“Certainly not, Mrs. Ferguson,” Doncaster said promptly. “Keep it an hour or two and see how you feel.”
“O nonsense,” Sheldrake broke in — “look here, Mrs. —”
“Shut up,” said Oliver. “That’s all right, Mrs. Ferguson. Carry on.”
“I won’t shut up,” Sheldrake shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, throwing other people’s property about?
“How do I know it’s your property?” Oliver shouted back. “I pick a bit of stone out of a hedge and you pop up out of a sound sleep and say your wife threw it there and will I give it back? Who are you, anyhow?”
“My name is Sheldrake, Angus M. Sheldrake,” the other answered. “I’m the chairman of Atlantic Airways and half a dozen other things. I gave seventy thousand pounds for that stone and I want it back at once.”
“Then you won’t get it back at once,” Oliver retorted, “not if you were the chairman of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic air, sea, and land ways, and the Tube railways too. Not if you offered me another seventy thousand — at least, you might then. I don’t know, so don’t tempt me. Or rather do, so that I can say, ‘Keep your dross.’ Start with fifty thousand, and go up by fives.”
“By God,” Sheldrake said, “I’ll have you all in prison for this.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Oliver answered crossly. “Go and wake up Bob Ricketts and tell him to arrest old Mrs. Ferguson for stealing your stone. I should like to see you explaining.”
The quarrel raged in this manner until Mrs. Ferguson, cloak and bonnet on, came to the door to start. “Is it the gentleman’s stone, sir?” she asked anxiously.
“He doesn’t know, I don’t know,” Oliver told her. “Get you along, Mrs. Ferguson, but don’t let it go out of your possession. I call everybody to witness,” he said loudly, addressing Mrs. Ferguson, Mrs. Pentridge, Sheldrake, the chauffeur, and the villagers who were beginning to collect, “that Mrs. Ruth Ferguson retains the property in question — namely, a stone — on my instructions until I am satisfied of the bonafides of the claimant, one Angus M. Sheldrake on his own confession. There,” he added to Sheldrake.
“What the devil do you suppose is the good of that?” Sheldrake said furiously.
“I don’t really know,” Oliver said comfortably, “but it creates a right impression, don’t you think?”
“But do you expect me to prove the whole bally thing to any fool who stops me in the street or any pickpocket who sneaks it?” Sheldrake raged.
“To be accurate, it was you who stopped me and wanted to pick my pocket — in effect,” Oliver said. “And we might as well spend the next two or three hours proving your bona-fides as not, don’t you think?”
“I’m not going to let that woman out of my sight,” Sheldrake said. “Where she goes I go.”
“Her people shall be thy people and her gods thy gods,” Oliver murmured. “Sudden conversion of a millionaire. The call of the old home. Way down on the Swanee River. O Dixie, my Dixie, our fearful trip is done.”
“O go to the devil,” Sheldrake said, leaping back to his car. “Barnes, follow that damned old woman in the black bonnet.”
“Yes, sir,” the chauffeur said obediently, and the procession started — Mrs. Ferguson and Mrs. Pentridge in front, Oliver strolling a few paces behind, the car rolling along in the road, parallel to him, and an increasing crowd of villagers, dissolving, reforming, chattering and exclaiming as the astonishing news spread. Rather owing to this tumultuous concourse than to any weakness on Mrs. Ferguson’s part it took them an hour to reach the mile-distant town of Rich-by-the-Mere, commonly called Rich, where Mrs. Ferguson’s asthmatic sister lived. By the time they reached her street the crowd was a mob, the car was doing the best it could among the excited groups, and Oliver had been pushed forward on to Mrs. Ferguson’s heels. The old lady knocked at the door, which was opened in a minute, and there followed immediately a loud scream.
“All right, Annie,” Mrs. Ferguson was heard to protest and the excitement in the crowd grew louder.
Sheldrake felt almost off his head with anger, despair, and doubt. He had realized during the slow crawl that to go to the police would be to broadcast the rumours of the Stone, but what was to happen he could not guess. That he would recover it he had no real doubt, but he wanted to recover it quietly and get out of England with it at the earliest possible moment. He peered out of the car to see Oliver, his back against the door of the house, giving a dramatic description of Mrs. Ferguson’s recovery to as many of the crowd as could hear him; he saw, remotely, the helmets of one or two policemen approaching slowly; he saw windows and doors open all round and new conversations leaping up every moment; he even discerned one or two members of the crowd scribbling in small note books, and dropped back with an oath. But he sat up again in a moment and managed to attract Oliver’s attention, who slid through the crowd to the car.
“Look here,” he said, “this is past a joke. I apologize if I was rude. I can prove anything you want me to. But as a matter of fact the stone does belong to me, and I must rely on you to get it back. You believe me, don’t you?”
“I do really,” Oliver said. “You were a bit uppish, you know, but I don’t understand what’s happened. Of course, it’s all nonsense about the stone healing her, but as things have turned out we shall have to go gently. We can’t have the poor old thing pushed back into bed because we take it away brutally. Leave it to me and I’ll get it back for you to-night. Where do you live?”
Angus told him. Oliver grimaced. “A bit of a way,” he said, “but I suppose it was my fault. Well, I’ll try and collect it gently to-night or tomorrow morning.”
“Excuse me, sir,” a voice beside him said, “but can you tell me whether it’s true that an old lady has been cured of cancer by a piece of magnetic iron? Does it belong to you or to this other gentleman? And is it true that she —”
Oliver and Sheldrake stared at each other. Suddenly Oliver looked round. Out of the window of the house Mrs. Pentridge was leaning.
“O Mr. Doncaster,” she called, “do please come. Auntie’s asthma’s gone. It went in the middle of a cough. O do come.” The noise broke out deafeningly. Mr. Sheldrake flung himself down in the car, and the small reporter fought his way beside Oliver to the door.
The next morning they all read it. Chloe at Highgate in a paper purchased when she saw the placards, Lord Arglay at Lancaster Gate in the Observer, Sir Giles at Ealing in his housekeeper’s Sunday Pictorial, Professor Palliser at Birmingham in the Sunday Times, Reginald at Brighton (though this was purely by accident, in a paper he picked up in the smoking-room of his hotel). It was even stated long afterwards, in a volume of memoirs, that at Sandringham the Majesty of England, augustly chatting with Lord Birlesmere (the Minister in attendance), the Persian Ambassador, and the author of the memoirs, had graciously deigned to remark that it was a very extraordinary affair. In the papers, Lourdes, the King’s Evil, the Early Christians, Mrs. Eddy, Mesmer, and other famous healers were introduced and, almost, invoked. For the scenes in Rich all night had been such “as to baffle description.” Once it had been understood that this impossible thing was happening, that health was being restored, and that so simply, so immediately, the house was almost rushed before the police could guard it. The two old ladies — Mrs. Ferguson and her sister — with Mrs. Pentridge were rushed up the stairs by Oliver, who, with one policeman by him, stationed himself near the top, exhorting, arguing, fighting. The crowd in the street was, with usual and immediate sympathy, continually dividing to let cripples through or the blind and the deaf. Many came rushing to borrow the Stone for the sick who could not come. Sheldrake’s car, opposite the front-door, was turned into a kind of Grand Stand. By midnight the whole place was in a tumult. The loss of the Stone itself became an imminent danger. Sheldrake was continually telling the police that it belonged to him; the police were concerned with more difficult matters. But the reporters had it. “The Stone,” they all declared, “was said to belong to Mr. Angus M. Sheldrake, the well-known . . . ” and so on. It was known all over England on that Sunday morning that Mr. Angus M. Sheldrake owned — whether at the moment he actually possessed was a little doubtful — a miraculous Stone which healed all illnesses at a mere wish.
“Well, really,” Lord Arglay said to himself, “Reginald seems to have done it this time.”
Reginald was much of the same opinion. But neither he nor anyone else of those concerned had any idea what to do next. The Persian Ambassador took advantage of the afternoon quiet at Sandringham to point out to Lord Birlesmere that if this were true, and if it were due to the relic of which he had spoken, and if the news were telegraphed abroad the most serious consequences might ensue. Lord Birlesmere took note of his Excellency’s communication, and, later on, got through to Rivington Court on the telephone. He had met Sheldrake two or three times and Angus came to speak. But when he understood that the Foreign Secretary was hinting at a personal interview he gave a little laugh.
“My dear Lord Birlesmere,” he said, “I couldn’t if I would. Not without a couple of thousand soldiers and machine guns. They’re all round the place, camping in the grounds, knocking at the doors. Every town in the district has discharged its halt and maimed here, and they all want me to heal them.”
“And do you?” Lord Birlesmere asked, fascinated by the idea.
“What?” said Mr. Sheldrake.
“But aren’t,” Lord Birlesmere went on, changing the subject, “aren’t the County Authorities doing anything?”
“They’ve drafted all the police that they have to spare,” Sheldrake told him, “and they’re communicating with London. But it doesn’t look as if that would help me till tomorrow.”
“I’ll talk to the Home Office people,” Birlesmere said. “You won’t mind promising not to leave England or get rid of the Stone till I’ve seen you?”
Sheldrake hesitated. His chief wish was to get out of England with the Stone; on the other hand his chances of doing so in the face of an antagonistic Foreign Office were small, and he was conscious that there were certain crises in which the Foreign Office would offer no strings for him to pull — the ends would all discreetly disappear. He did not completely understand why the Foreign Office was interfering at all; the Stone hardly seemed to be their pigeon. He had gathered from Cecilia when she returned the night before, or rather when he had himself returned that morning, that the Government was mixed up with it; and of course the Stone was said to have come from abroad. Still . . .
“Well,” he said, “if you’ll get me out of this at once I don’t mind promising to see you before I leave.”
“But can’t you really get away?” Lord Birlesmere asked. It seemed to him inconceivable that any crowd could really prison a man in his own country house, but that was because he had never seen it happen. The concourse round Mr. Sheldrake’s front-door, between that and the garage, trying to look in, and even to get in, at the windows, continually flowing in through the gates, occupying the lawns, the terraces, and the gardens, consisted of more people than Lord Birlesmere had seen in all his life. They were quiet while they were not interfered with, in an uncertain quiet. They doubted whether it was much good their coming. They might, before evening, disperse from sheer discouragement and hunger; but the one or two attempts made by an insufficient band of police to shift them had merely produced irritation and, once or twice, something like serious trouble.
Lord Birlesmere, discovering all this by gentle questioning, at last, with some sort of qualified promise, put the receiver back and stared at it. Soldiers were all very well, but the Government was shaky enough, and what would the Opposition papers say if he used the Army to hold back a crowd of suffering English men and women from their chance of healing, and to ensure the escape of an American millionaire with the source of healing in his possession? The Opposition would know, as well as Mr. Sheldrake, as well as Lord Birlesmere himself, that the idea of the Stone doing anything was rubbish. He wished the Prime Minister was in London, but he wasn’t; he was in Aberdeen. The best thing was obviously to get Sheldrake quietly to London — perhaps later the crowd would disperse a bit — and then there was this Sir Giles Tumulty the Persian Ambassador had mentioned — an interview there. What on earth had Bruce Cumberland been doing, if anything? The thought of the Ambassador suggested to Lord Birlesmere that it might be just as well if he did not learn too much from the Persian; he didn’t want to be put too clearly in possession of the views of a friendly Government. Sheldrake had certainly better be removed quietly. He took such measures as suggested themselves.
On the same Sunday evening the Hajji came round to Lord Arglay’s house. The Chief Justice threw down the latest edition of a special evening paper and greeted him with a certain pretended cynicism. “This, I suppose,” he said, “is the evil you prophesied for the world — all this healing, I mean?”
“There is not a great deal of healing so far; there is a great deal of desire for healing,” Ibrahim answered. “That may be an evil.”
“If Sheldrake gets off to America with it, there’ll be an evil all right,” Lord Arglay said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they passed a special act to prevent him.”
“Can your Parliament do such things?” the Hajji asked.
“O rather,” Lord Arglay said. “Prevention of Removal of Art Treasures, I should think. It’ll take Sheldrake as long as we like to prove the Stone isn’t an Art Treasure. Or they may claim that the sale is invalid because it never was Reginald’s; only then you’d want a real claimant. And who could that be? Not me, obviously; not Giles — he wouldn’t; not the Ambassador — they’d have to give it back to him.”
“You think they would not?” said the Hajji.
“I am absolutely and perfectly sure they would not,” Lord Arglay said. “And really, Hajji, I don’t know that I blame them. After all, it’s not the kind of thing that any one man or family or country even ought to keep. I’m not at all sure it ought to be in existence at all, but after what I’ve seen I can’t think how to destroy it. If you dropped it into the Atlantic I should be afraid of it floating to the Esquimaux or some such people. And it can’t be left loose. Look at what happens when it is.”
“What then,” the Hajji said, “do you think should be done with it?”
“I can’t think,” Lord Arglay said. “Unless the League of Nations? With a special international guard? No? I was afraid you wouldn’t agree.”
“You are mocking at it and me,” the Hajji said.
“No, I’m not,” the Chief Justice assured him. “I’m a little de-normally-mented about it. But I take it very seriously. When the English take anything very seriously they always become a trifle delirious. People tell you that we aren’t logical, but it isn’t true. Only our logic is a logic of poetry. We are the Tom o’ Bedlam of the nations, the sceptics of the world, and we have no hope at all, or none to speak of — that is why we are always so good at adopting new ideas. Look at the way Reginald adopted the Stone.”
The Hajji went on looking at him gravely. “And what are you going to do now?” he said.
“I’m in several minds,” Lord Arglay said. “And one is to take the Stone and will myself wherever what you call its Types are and collect them all one by one, whether their present possessors agree or not, and then will myself inside Vesuvius with them all. And one is to go and look for this Pondon fellow. And another is to go and knock Giles on the head. That’s three — and the fourth? The fourth is to take the Stone and will it to do what it will with me.”
“And that is the most dangerous of all,” the Hajji said.
“After all,” Arglay argued, “if Miss Burnett seems to think she can get wisdom from it, why shouldn’t I?”
“Does she?” the Hajji asked.
“No, of course she doesn’t,” Lord Arglay said irritably. “It was I who asked her that. Hajji, I’m just rambling. But what in God’s name can we do?”
The Hajji brooded. “I think that it only knows,” he said. “But I dare not use it at all, because it is so great and terrible, and I do not think you believe in it enough for it to reveal its will. What of this friend of yours?”
“Who?” Lord Arglay said blankly.
“This Miss Burnett,” Ibrahim answered. “Does she believe?”
Lord Arglay stared at him. “What if she does? What can she believe in?” he said. “Are you proposing to play some such trick on her as Giles did on Pondon? Because if so, Hajji, I may as well tell you I shall stop it. Besides, why do you think she’d find out?”
“If — no, it is impossible,” the Hajji said. “But I dreamed that I saw the Name of Allah written on her forehead as it is written on the Stone. And it is certain that the way to the Stone is in the Stone.”
“Then,” Lord Arglay said, not unreasonably, “why don’t you take it?”
“Those of my house,” the Hajji answered reluctantly, “who were of the Keepers have sworn always to guard and never to use the Relics they keep. Neither this nor a yet more sacred thing.”
“What else is there then?” Arglay asked.
“There is that which is in the Innermost,” the Hajji answered, “that which controls all things. And I fear lest by the knowledge of the Stone any shall come to find this other thing, For it is said that even Asmodeus when he wore it sat on the throne of Suleiman ben Daood in Jerusalem, and if your Giles Tumulty —”
I expect even Asmodeus was a gentleman compared with Giles,” Lord Arglay said. “But seriously, Hajji, do you mean that there is something else behind? And if so what is it?”
“I must not tell you,” Ibrahim said.
“Quite,” Lord Arglay answered, half as a gibe, half as a submission. “It’s all very useful, isn’t it? Well, Hajji, will you help me to find this Pondon man? Is there any particular formula?”
“I think you had need be careful,” Ibrahim answered. “For if you will to return to the worlds that were you will not have the Stone with you.”
“Giles’s idea seemed to be,” Lord Arglay said, “that one could will to return to the past for ten minutes or so.”
“I do not see how you can bring this man back from the past without the Stone, and if you return to the past you will not have the Stone,” the Hajji said doubtfully. “Besides, though you can return to your own past, I do not know whether you can return to his.”
“But why can’t I go to him now,” Lord Arglay said, “wherever he is now? Damn it, man, he must be somewhere now.”
“If you are right, he is nowhere at all now,” the Hajji said. “He has not yet reached now. He is in yesterday.”
“O Lord!” the Chief Justice said. “But he must be somewhere in space.”
“O in space he is no doubt here or there or anywhere,” Ibrahim answered. “For yesterday’s space is exactly where today’s space is.”
“And tomorrow’s also?” Lord Arglay said.
“I think that is true,” the Hajji told him. “But tomorrow’s exists only in a greater knowledge than ours and it can only be experienced in that diviner knowledge. Therefore to experience the future, though not perhaps to foresee the future, it is necessary to enter the soul of the world with the inward being.”
“Then Giles did not miss that half-hour?” Lord Arglay said, and explained the situation. The Hajji shook his head. “I think,” he answered, “that he has known, in an infinitely small fraction of time, all his future until he enters the End of Desire.
“He has foreknown that which he is now experiencing?” Lord Arglay asked.
“I think so,” Ibrahim answered. “But though he knew it I do not think it is now within his memory, nor will be until he reaches the end. For to remember the future he must have foreknown his memory of that future, and yet that he could not do without first foreknowing it without memory. So I think he is spared that evil. Exalted for ever be the Mercy of the Compassionate!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15