War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Eleven

The Ointment

The afternoon which had preceded the supernatural effort to destroy the Graal had been made use of by Mr. Gregory Persimmons to pay two visits. The first had been with the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire to the shop in Lord Mayor Street. But after the visit was made and the information acquired Colonel Conyers and he had parted in the Finchley Road, the Colonel to go to Scotland Yard in a chance taxi, he ostensibly for the Tube at Golder’s Green. Once the Colonel had disappeared, however, Gregory returned as swiftly as possible to the shop.

The Greek had resumed his everlasting immobility, but, though he said nothing, his eyes lightened a little as he saw the other again come in.

“Do you know what has happened?” Gregory asked in that subdued tone to which the place seemed to compel its visitors.

“It seems they have recovered it,” the Greek said and looked askew at a much older man who had just come into the shop from a small back room. The new-comer was smaller than the Greek, and much smaller than Gregory; his movements were swift and his repose alert. His bearded face was that of a Jew.

“You heard?” the Greek said.

“I heard,” the stranger answered. He looked angrily at Gregory. “How long have you known this?” he asked, with a note of fierceness.

“Known — known what?” Gregory said, involuntarily falling back a step. “Known that they had it? Why, he only took it this morning.”

“Known that it was — that,” the other said. “What time we have wasted!” He stepped up to the Greek and seized him by the arm. “But it isn’t too late,” he said. “We can do it tonight.”

The Greek turned his head a little. “We can do it if you like,” he acquiesced. “If it is worth while.”

“Worth while!” the Jew snapped at him. “Of course it is worth while. It is a stronghold of power, and we can tear it to less than dust. I do not understand you, Dimitri.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dimitri answered. “You will understand one day. There will be nothing else to understand.”

The other began to speak, but Gregory, whom his last words had brought suddenly back to the dirty discoloured counter, said suddenly, but still with that subdued voice, “What do you mean? Tear it to dust? Do you mean that? What are you going to do?”

The others looked over at him, the Jew scornfully, the other with a faint amusement. The Greek said, “Manasseh and I are going to destroy the Cup.”

“Destroy it!” Gregory mouthed at them. “Destroy it! But there are a hundred things to do with it. It can be used and used again. I have made the child see visions in it; it has power.”

“Because it has power,” the Jew answered, leaning over the counter and whispering fiercely, “it must be destroyed. Don’t you understand that yet? They build and we destroy. That’s what levels us; that’s what stops them. One day we shall destroy the world. What can you do with it that is so good as that? Are we babies to look to see what will happen tomorrow or where a lost treasure is or whether a man has a gluttonous heart? To destroy this is to ruin another of their houses, and another step towards the hour when we shall breathe against the heavens and they shall fall. The only use in anything for us is that it may be destroyed.”

Before the passion in his tones Gregory again fell back. But he made another effort.

“But can’t we use it to destroy them?” he asked. “See, I have called up a child’s soul by it and it answered me. Let me keep it a little while to do a work with it.”

“That’s the treachery,” the Jew answered. “Keep it for this, keep it for that. Destroy it, I tell you; while you keep anything for a reason you are not wholly ours. It shall tremble and fade and vanish into nothingness to-night.”

Gregory looked at the Greek, who looked back impassively. The Jew went on muttering. At last Dimitri, putting out a slow hand, touched him, and the other with a little angry tremor fell silent. Then the Greek said, looking past them, “It is all one; in the end it is all one. You do not believe each other and neither of you will believe me. But in the end there is nothing at all but you and that which goes by. You will be sick at heart because there is nothing, nothing but a passing, and in the midst of the passing a weariness that is you. All things shall grow fainter, all desire cease in that sickness and the void that is about it. And this, even for me, is when I have only looked into the bottomless pit. For my spirit is still held in a place of material things. But when the body is drawn into the spirit, and at last they fall, then you shall know what the end of desire and destruction is. I will do what you will while you will, for the time comes when no man shall work.”

Manasseh sneered at him. “When I knew you first,” he said, “you did great things in the house of our God. Will you go and kneel before the Cup and weep for what you have done?”

“I have no tears and no desire,” the Greek said. “I am weary beyond all mortal weariness and my heart is sick and my eyes blind with the sight of the nothing through which we fall. Say what you will do and I will do it, for even now I have power that is not yours.”

“I will bring this thing into atoms and less than atoms,” Manasseh answered. “I will cause it to be as if it had never been. I will send power against it and it shall pass from all knowledge and be nothing but a memory.”

“So,” the Greek said. “And you?” he asked Gregory.

“I will help you, then,” Gregory answered, a little sullenly, “if it must be done.”

“No, you shall not help us,” Manasseh said sharply, “for in your heart you desire it still.”

“Let him that desires to possess seek to possess,” the Greek commanded, “and him that desires to destroy seek to destroy. Let each of you work in his own way, until an end comes; and I who will help the one to possess will help the other to destroy, for possession and destruction are both evil and are one. But alas for the day when none shall possess your souls and they only of all things that you have known cannot be destroyed for ever.”

He stood upright. “Go,” he said to Gregory, “and set your traps. Come,” to Manasseh, “and we will think of these things.”

But Manasseh delayed a moment. “Tell me,” he said to Gregory, “of what size and shape is the Cup?”

Gregory nodded towards the Greek. “I brought the book up last Saturday with the drawing in,” he said. “You can see it there. But why should I try to recover it if you are going to destroy it?”

The Greek answered him. “Because no one knows what the future may bring to your trap; because till you prepare yourself to possess you cannot possess. Because destruction is not yet accomplished.”

Gregory brooding doubtfully, turned, and went slowly out of the shop.

He went on to his son’s office, and there, inflamed with a certain impotent rage at the destruction threatened to that which he had spent some pains to procure, eased it by doing all he could to destroy Kenneth’s security. After which he banished Stephen from the room, and talked for some time on the telephone to Ludding at Cully.

It was in pursuance of the instructions then received that Ludding the next morning strolled down to the Rectory. In a neat chauffeur’s uniform, clean-shaved and alert, he presented so different an appearance from that of the bearded tramp who had called on the Archdeacon a month earlier that Mrs. Lucksparrow, even had the time been shorter, would not have recognized him. He had come down, it appeared, on a message from Mr. Persimmons to the Archdeacon.

“The Archdeacon isn’t at home,” Mrs. Lucksparrow said. “I’m sure I’m sorry you’ve had your trouble for nothing.”

“No trouble, ma’am,” Ludding answered; “indeed, as things have turned out, it’s given me more pleasure than if he had been.” His bow pointed the remark.

“Well,” said Mrs. Lucksparrow, “I won’t deny but what it’s a pleasure to see someone to speak to, we being rather out of the way here — except for clergymen and tramps; and naturally the clergy don’t come and talk to me, not but what some of them are nice enough in their way. Why, we’ve had the Bishop here before now, and a straightforward, pleasant-speaking gentleman too, though a bit on the hurried side, always wanting to get on somewhere else and do the next thing. I don’t hold with it myself, not so much of it. What’s done too quick has to be done twice my mother used to say, and she had eleven children and two husbands, though most of them was before I was born, being the youngest. Many’s the time she’s said to me, ‘Lucy, my girl, you’ve never dusted that room yet, I’ll be bound.”

She stopped abruptly, a habit arising from a natural fear which possessed her when in attendance on the Archdeacon and his clerical visitors that she might be talking too much. But the sudden silence substituted for a gentle flow of words was apt to disconcert strangers, who found themselves expected to answer before they had any idea they had finished listening. Ludding was caught so now, and had to say in some haste, “Well, I’d rather trust you than a Bishop, Mrs. Lucksparrow.”

“Oh, no,” the housekeeper answered, “I don’t think you should say that, Mr. Ludding, for they’re meant to teach us, though there, again, my schoolmistress used to say, ‘Take your time, girls, take your time,’ though mostly over maps.”

“Yes,” Ludding said, prepared this time. “And I suppose you don’t know when the Archdeacon will be back. I expect he takes his time.” He laughed gently. “If he was married I expect he’d have to be back sooner.”

“If he was married,” Mrs. Lucksparrow said, “he wouldn’t do a lot he does now. He’s brought women home before now — well, it’s not right to talk of it, Mr. Ludding, for fear of giving him a bad name, though he meant them nothing but good, little as they deserved it; and sometimes he never goes to bed at all, up in the church all night, when he thinks I’m asleep. If it wasn’t that he can’t eat pork I’d think he wasn’t human, for I like a bit of pork, and it comes hard never being able to have it, for, of course, two joints is what I couldn’t think of, and it’s bad enough never daring to mention it or I believe it’d slip out, and then he’d go and buy a pig and have it sent home, all for a chop or two, but as for coming back, that I couldn’t say, with only a telegram to say detained tonight, meaning yesterday — though, if it was anyone dying or anything, there’s Mr. Batesby here.”

“It wasn’t really important,” Ludding said, “only that Mr. Persimmons thought he’d like some fruit and flowers for the Harvest Festival, and wanted to know when it was likely to be.”

“Second Sunday in September,” Mrs. Lucksparrow said, “at least it was last year. But there is Mr. Batesby, and he’d know if anyone did, outside the Archdeacon.”

Ludding looked over his shoulder to see Mr. Batesby emerging from the churchyard gate in the company of a stranger, a young man in a light grey suit and soft hat who was strolling carelessly by the priest’s side. Mrs. Lucksparrow looked also, and said suddenly: “Why, it’s a Chinaman; he’s got those squinting eyes the Chinaman had when he stopped with the Archdeacon two years ago,” rather as if there was only one Chinaman in the world. Ludding, however, as the two came nearer, doubted Mrs. Lucksparrow’s accuracy; there seemed nothing Chinese about this stranger’s full face — it was perhaps a little dark, a kind of Indian, the chauffeur thought vaguely.

“Shrines,” Mr. Batesby was saying, “shrines of rest and peace, that’s what our country churches ought to be, and are, most of them. Steeped in quiet, church and churchyard — all asleep, beautifully asleep. And all round them the gentle village life, simple, homely souls. Some people want incense and lights and all that — but I say it’s out of tune, it’s the wrong atmosphere. True religion is an inward thing. It’s so true, isn’t it? ‘the Kingdom of God is within you.’ Just to remember that — within you.”

“It cometh not by observation,” the stranger said gravely.

“True, true,” Mr. Batesby assented. “So what do we want with candles?”

They reached the door, and he looked inquiringly at Ludding, who explained his errand, and added that he was sorry the Archdeacon wasn’t at home and was it known when he would be back?

Mr. Batesby shook his head. “Not to a day or two,” he said. “Gone on good works, no doubt. ‘Make hay while the sun shineth, for the night cometh,’” and then, feeling dimly uncertain of this quotation, went on hastily, “We must all do what we can, mustn’t we? Each in our small corner. Little enough, no doubt, just a car”— he looked at Ludding — “or a kitchen”— he looked at Mrs. Lucksparrow —“or — something,” he ended, looking at the stranger, who nodded seriously, but offered no enlightenment for a moment. Then, as if in pity at Mr. Batesby’s slightly obvious disappointment, he said, “I have been a traveller.”

“Ah, yes, to be sure,” the priest answered. “A broadening life, no doubt. Well, well, I venture to think you have seen nothing better than this in all your travels.” He indicated church and garden and fields. “Not, of course, that the serpent isn’t here too. The old serpent. But we crush his head.”

“And your heels?” the stranger asked. Mr. Batesby took a moment to grasp this, and then said, gently smiling. “Yes, yes, not always unstung, I fear. Why, the Archdeacon here was assaulted only a few weeks ago in broad daylight. Scandalous. If it hadn’t been for a good neighbour of ours, I don’t know what might have happened. Why, you were there too, Ludding, weren’t you?”

“Were you?” the stranger asked, looking him in the face. “I was,” Ludding said, almost sullenly, “if it’s any business of yours.”

“I think perhaps it may be,” the stranger said softly. “I have come a long journey because I think it may be.” He turned to Mr. Batesby. “Good day. I am obliged to you,” he said, and turned back to Ludding. “Walk with me,” he went on casually. “I have a question to ask you.”

“Look here,” the chauffeur said, moving after him, “who the hell do you think you are, asking me questions? If you want —”

“It is a very simple question,” the stranger said. “Where does your master live?”

“Anyone will tell you,” Ludding answered reluctantly and almost as if explaining to himself why he spoke. “At Cully over there. But he isn’t there now.”

“He is perhaps in London with the Archdeacon?” the stranger asked. “No, don’t lie; it doesn’t matter. I will go up to the house.”

“He isn’t there, I tell you,” Ludding said, standing still as if he had been dismissed. “What the devil’s the good of going to the house? We don’t want Chinks hanging round up there, or any other kind of nigger. D’ye hear me? Leave it alone, can’t you? Here, I’m talking to you, God blind you! You let Mr. Persimmons alone!” As the stranger drew farther away his voice became louder and his words more ‘violent, so that Inspector Colquhoun, who was allowing himself a few days in the village, partly out of his holiday, partly in a kind of desperate wonder whether Cully would yield any suggestions, came round a turn in the road on his way from the station to see a man standing still and shouting after an already remote figure.

“Anything wrong?” he asked involuntarily.

Ludding turned round furiously. “Yes,” he said, “you’re wrong. Who asked you to blink your fat eyes at me, you flat-nosed, fat-bellied louse?”

The inspector considered the uniform. “You take care, my man,” he said.

“Christ Almighty!” Ludding yelled at him, “if you don’t get off I’ll smash your —”

Colquhoun stepped nearer. “Say another word to me,” he said, “you jumping beer-barrel, and I’ll knock you into the middle of Gehenna!” The prospect of being able to repay someone connected with a Persimmons for all that he had gone through was almost delightful. Nevertheless, he hardly expected the chauffeur to make such an immediate rush for him as he did. He defended himself with strength enough to make aggression an imperceptible sequence, and succeeded in drawing Ludding to one side of the road, until he unexpectedly crashed into the ditch behind him. Colquhoun stepped back a pace. “Come out if you like,” he said, “and let me knock you into it again.”

It was upon the chauffeur scrambling furiously out of the ditch that Mr. Gregory Persimmons looked when he in turn, a little later than the inspector, being a slower walker, came along the road from the station. He had paid his visit to Lord Mayor Street that morning, to find Manasseh almost beside himself with enraged disappointment, and only too anxious to take any steps for recovering the Graal. The Greek had taken little part in their discussion; the effort of the night had left him so exhausted physically that he was lying back in a chair with closed eyes, and only now and then threw a suggestion to the others. Gregory’s chief difficulty was to insist on maintaining the friendly relations with the Rackstraws that were essential to his designs on Adrian, and might, he recognized, already have been endangered by the break with Mornington. This, however, he hoped to arrange; judicious explanations and promises might do much, and Adrian’s own liking for him was a strong card to play. At last he had compelled Manasseh to see his aim, and then a fresh proposal had been made. Manasseh with the Greek would concern themselves with securing the Graal, and Gregory was to get hold of Adrian within the next few days. “Then,” Manasseh said, “we can take the hidden road to the East.”

“The hidden road?” Gregory asked.

Manasseh smiled knowingly. “Ah,” he said, “you’ve a lot to learn yet. Ask your friend Sir Giles; he knows about it, I expect. Ask him if he’s ever been to the furniture shop in Amsterdam or the picture dealer in Zurich. Ask him if he knows the boat-builder in Constantinople and the Armenian ferry. You are only on the edge of things here in London. The vortex of destruction is in the East. I have seen a house fall to fragments before a thought and men die in agony because the Will overcame them. Bring the child and come, and we will go into the high places of our god.”

In the subtle companionship that existed between them Gregory felt the. hope in his heart expand. “In three days from now I will be with you,” he said. “By Friday night I will bring the child here.”

With this purpose and a plan formed in his mind, he had returned to Fardles, to find his chauffeur struggling out of the ditch in the face of a contemptuous enemy.

When Ludding saw his employer he came to the road with a final effort and paused rather ridiculously. The inspector saw the hesitation, and looked round at Gregory, realizing that the odds were in favour of its being Gregory. He took the initiative.

“Mr. Persimmons?” he asked.

“I am Mr. Persimmons,” Gregory answered mildly.

“I suspect this man is your chauffeur,” the inspector said, and, as Gregory nodded, went on, “I’m sorry to have been obliged to knock him down. I found him shouting out in the roadway, and when I asked if anything was wrong he was first grossly rude and then attacked me. But I don’t think he’s hurt.”

“Hurt,” Ludding broke out, and was checked by Gregory’s lifted hand. “I’m sorry,” Persimmons said. “If by any chance it should happen again, pray knock him down again.”

“No offence intended to you, sir,” the inspector said. He thought for a moment whether he would make an attempt to enter into conversation with the other, but decided against it; he wanted, so far as he had a clear wish, to pick up opinion in the village first. So, with a casual inclination of the head, he started off down the road.

Persimmons looked at Ludding. “And now perhaps you will explain,” he said. “Dear me, Ludding, you are letting this temper grow on you. You must try and control it. Why, you might be attacking me next; mightn’t you?” He moved a little nearer. “Answer me, you swine, mightn’t you?”

“I don’t know why I hit him, sir,” Ludding said unhappily. “It was the other man who irritated me.”

“The other man: what other man?” Persimmons asked. “Are you blind or drunk, you fool?”

Ludding made an effort to pull himself together. “It was a young man, sir, in a grey suit. Asked after you and where you lived, and went off up to Cully. He made me see red, sir, and I was shouting after him when this fellow came up.”

“A young man,” Gregory said, “wanting to see me? This is very curious. And you didn’t know him, Ludding?”

“Never seen him before, sir,” Ludding answered. “He looked rather like an Indian, I thought.”

Gregory’s mind flew to what Manasseh had said of the hidden way to the East; was this anything to do with it? What possibilities, what vistas, might be opened! Whatever throne existed there, an end to that path he had followed so long and so painfully, would it not welcome him, coming with the Graal in one hand and the child for initiation in the other? He quickened his steps. “Let us see this young man,” he said, and hastened on to Cully.

Followed by Ludding, he came to the gates and up the drive, down which he had rushed twenty-four hours before. As he rounded the turn from which Colonel Conyers had shouted at the constable, he met the stranger face to face, and all three of them stood still.

Gregory’s first impression was that Ludding had been merely romancing when he spoke of the stranger being an Indian; the face that confronted him was surely as European as his own. There was something strange about it, but it was a strangeness rather of expression than of race, a high, contained glance that observed an unimportant world. The eyes took him in and neglected him at once, and together with him took in the whole of the surroundings and dismissed them also as of small worth. One hand carried gloves and walking-stick; the other, raised to the level of the face, moved lazily forward now and then as if to wave away some sort of slight unpleasantness, and every now and then also nostrils were wrinkled a little as if at some remote but objectionable smell that floated in the air. He had the appearance of being engaged upon a tiresome but necessary business, and this was enhanced as he paused on the drive and allowed his glance to dwell on Gregory.

“You want me?” Persimmons said, and the instant that he spoke became conscious that he actively disliked the stranger, with a hostility that surprised him with its own virulence. It stood out in his inner world as distinctly as the stranger himself in the full sunlight of the outer; and he knew for almost the first time what Manasseh felt in his rage for utter destruction.

His fingers twitched to tear the clothes off his enemy and to break and pound him into a mass of flesh and bone, but he knew nothing of that external sign, for his being was absorbed in a more profound lust. It aimed itself in a thrust of passion which should wholly blot the other out of existence, and again its young opponent’s upraised and open hand moved gently forward and downward, as if, like the Angel by the walls of Dis, he put aside the thick and noisome atmosphere of his surroundings.

“No,” he said coldly, “I do not think I want you.”

“What are you doing here, then?” Gregory asked thickly. “Why are you wandering about my house?”

“I am studying the map,” the stranger said, “and I find this a centre marked on it.”

“My servants shall throw you out,” Gregory cried. “I do not allow trespassers.”

“You have no servants,” the other said; “you have only slaves and shadows. And only slaves can trespass, and they only among shadows.”

“You are mad,” Gregory cried again. “Why have you come to my house?”

“I have not entered your house,” the stranger answered, “for the time is not yet. But it is not that which you should fear — it is the day when you shall enter mine.”

Ludding, encouraged by his master’s presence, took a step forward. The stranger threw him a glance and he stopped. His anger was so intense, however, that it drove him into speech.

“Who are you — coming here and talking like this?” he said. “Who the hell are you?”

“Yes,” Gregory said, “tell us your name. You have damaged my property — you shall pay for it.”

The other moved his hand outward again and smiled. “My name is John,” he said, “and you know some, I think, that know me.”

Gregory thought of his enemies. “That pestilent priest, perhaps?” he sneered, “or the popinjay of a Duke? Are these your friends? Or is the Duke too vulgar for you? What kings have you in the house of which you brag?”

“Seventy kings have eaten at my table,” the stranger said. “You say well, for I myself am king and priest and sib to all priests and kings.”

He dropped his hand and moved leisurely forward. Gregory inevitably stepped out of his direct path. As he passed Ludding the chauffeur put a hand out towards his shoulder. But he didn’t somehow lay hold, and with an equal serenity of gait the stranger went on and at length passed out of the gates. Gregory, pulsating with anger too bitter for words, turned sharply and went on to the house. And the chauffeur, cursing himself, drifted slowly to the garage.

By the afternoon, however, Gregory had recovered his balance, or, rather, his intention. Whether the stranger was a wandering lunatic or whether he had some real link with the three fools who had carried off the Graal he did not know; and, anyhow, it did not matter. His immediate business was with the Rackstraws, and an hour before tea he went down towards the cottage to find them.

They were a little distance from it among some trees. Barbara was reading Mr. Wodehouse’s latest Jeeves book, and Lionel, stretched on the ground, was telling Adrian the adventures of Odysseus the wise, the far-travelled. The story broke off when Gregory appeared.

“Have you been to London?” Adrian asked.

“Darling —” Barbara murmured.

“Well, Jessie said he had, Mummie,” Adrian protested. Jessie was the maid from Cully.

“Jessie was perfectly right,” Gregory answered. “I have been to London, and I have come back. In London, Adrian, they have large trains and many soldiers.” He paused.

“I have a large train in London,” Adrian soliloquised. “It has a guard’s van with luggage in.”

“I saw a train,” Gregory said, “which belongs to your London train. It asked to be taken to Adrian because it belonged to him.”

“What, another train? A train I haven’t seen?” Adrian asked, large-eyed.

“A train you haven’t seen, but it belongs to you,” Gregory answered seriously. “Everything belongs to you, Adrian. You are the Lord of the World — if you like. One day, if you like, I will give you the world.”

“After this week I could almost believe that, Mr. Persimmons,” Barbara said. “What would you do with the world, Adrian?”

Adrian considered. “I would put it in my train,” he said. “Where is the train I haven’t seen?” he asked Gregory.

“Up at the big house,” Gregory answered. “Let’s all go up there to tea, shall we? And after tea you shall see the train. It’s gone to sleep now, and it won’t be awake till after tea,” he explained gravely.

Adrian took his hand. “Shall we go?” he said, and pulled anxiously to lead the way.

“Let us go,” Gregory assented, and looked back laughing over his shoulder. “Will you come?” he cried.

Barbara stretched out her hands, and Lionel pulled her to her feet. “I just want to shimmer up, like Jeeves, not walk,” she said. “Do you like Jeeves, Mr. Persimmons?”

“Jeeves?” Gregory asked. “I don’t think I know it or him or them.”

“Oh, you must,” Barbara cried. “When I get back to London I’ll send you a set.”

“It’s a book, or a man in a book,” Lionel interrupted. “Barbara adores it.”

“Well, so do you,” Barbara said. “You always snigger when you read him.”

“That is the weakness of the flesh,” Lionel said. “One shouldn’t snigger over Jeeves any more than one should snivel over Othello. Perfect art is beyond these easy emotions. I think Jeeves — the whole book, preferably with the illustrations — one of the final classic perfections of our time. It attains absolute being. Jeeves and his employer are one and yet diverse. It is the Don Quixote of the twentieth century.”

“I must certainly read it,” Gregory said, laughing. “Tell me more about it while we have tea.”

After the meal the four of them climbed to the gallery and Mr. Persimmons’s room, where the train was marvellously arrayed and arranged. Adrian gave himself up to it, with Barbara assisting. Gregory took Lionel over to the bookcases. Presently, however, they were recalled by calls from the train, and found that somewhere in the complicated mechanism a hitch had occurred. Gregory examined it, turning the engine over in his hands; then he said: “I think I see what the fault is.” He fiddled with it for a minute or two, then he looked at Barbara with a smile. “Would you mind holding it, Mrs. Rackstraw?” he asked. “I just can’t get the right bit past the screw with one hand.”

Barbara took it willingly, and Gregory pushed and thrust at the mechanism for a minute or two. Then he altered the position of his left hand so that it lay lightly over Barbara’s fingers and thrust again with his right. There was a slip, a jangle, an oath from Gregory, a light shriek from Barbara, an exclamation from Lionel; then the engine had dropped to the floor, while the men stared at a long scratch on the inside of Barbara’s wrist and lower arm from which the blood was already oozing.

“My dear Mrs. Rackstraw, I am so sorry,” Gregory exclaimed. “Do please forgive me. Does it hurt you much?”

“Heavens, no!” Barbara said. “Lend me your handkerchief, Lionel, mine isn’t big enough. Don’t worry, Mr. Persimmons, it’ll be all right in a few minutes if I just do it up.”

“Oh, but you must put something on it,” Gregory said. “Look here, I’ve got some ointment here — only a patent medicine, I admit; I forget what they call it — not Zam-buk, but something like it. Anyhow, it works rather well.” He had gone across to a drawer, and now produced a small round wooden box, which he held out to Barbara. “And there’s some rag somewhere; ah, here it is.”

Barbara wrinkled her nose as she took the box. “What a funny smell!” she said. “Thank you so much. But I’ve got Vaseline, at home.”

“Don’t wait,” Gregory said, “put some on now and do it up.” He turned to Adrian. “Still,” he said, “I put the engine right. But it oughtn’t to have had a sharp edge like that. I must take it back next time I’m in town.”

Half an hour slipped away. Then Lionel, turning by accident to put a book down on the table, saw his wife’s face.

“Barbara,” he said suddenly, “do you feel ill?”

She was lying back in her chair, and as he spoke she looked across at him, at first unrecognizingly. Then she said, speaking dizzily: “Lionel, Lionel, is that you? I’m fainting or something; I don’t know where I am! Lionel!”

Lionel was across the room and by her side, even as Gregory, who was sitting on the floor by Adrian, rose to his feet. Persimmons glanced at his guest, went across and pressed the bell, and returned. Rackstraw was speaking as quietly as he could, to soothe her. But she sat up suddenly and began to scream, her eyes blind to everything round her, her hands thrusting away from her. “Lionel! Lionel! Oh, God! Oh, God! Lionel!”

Lionel threw a look towards Gregory. “Adrian!” he said. Gregory turned to the child, who, startled and horrified, was beginning to cry, picked him up with murmured consolations and encouragements, and went quickly to meet Ludding at the door.

“Mrs. Rackstraw is ill,” he said. “Telephone to the doctor; and then come back. I may want you. He’ll be here as quickly if you telephone as if you go down in the car, won’t he? Hurry!”

Ludding vanished, and Gregory, going with Adrian into the next room, produced a parcel of curious shape, which he presented to the child. But Adrian heard, even through the closed doors, the spasmodic shrieks that came from the next room, and clung despairingly to Gregory. Then amid the cries they heard movements and footsteps, a chair falling, and Lionel’s voice on a quick note of command. Adrian began to scream in alarm, and Ludding, on his return from the telephone, was sent to find the maid Jessie, between whom and Adrian a pleasant friendship had ripened. She carried him off to her own quarters, and Gregory ran into the next room.

There Barbara had collapsed again into a seat, in which she was writhing and twisting, at intervals crying out still for Lionel.

“But, my darling, I’m here,” he said, tortured beyond any of his own visionary fears. “Can’t you see me? Can’t you feel me?” He took her hands.

By the long alliance of their bodies, knit by innumerable light touches of impatience or of delight, some kind of bridge seemed to be established. Barbara’s hands closed on his, and her voice grew into a frenzy of appeal. “Save me, Lionel, save me! I can’t see you. Come to me, Lionel!”

Lionel looked back at Gregory. “What on earth’s happened?” he said in a low voice. “Can’t we do anything?”

“I’ve sent for the doctor,” Gregory answered in equally subdued tones. “We can’t do anything but hang on till he comes. Adrian’s with Jessie. Try her with the child’s name.”

Barbara had relapsed again into comparative silence, though her frame was shuddering and trembling in the moment’s exhaustion. Gregory, from behind Lionel, considered her thoughtfully. The operation of the ointment would have, he supposed, some sort of parallel to his own experience. But where in him, it had released and excited his directing purpose to a fuller consummation, in Barbara Rackstraw, who probably drifted through the world like most people, “neither for God nor for his enemies,” it was more likely simply to define and energize the one side, without giving it entire separation and control. All with which he had felt himself one would be to Barbara an invader, a conqueror, perhaps even an infernal lover; she would feel it in her body, her blood, her mind, her soul. Unless indeed she also became that, though since without her definite intention, so without her definite control. Then, instead of calling for Lionel, would she shriek at him? How funny! He picked up the box of ointment and dropped it into his pocket; there was another more harmless box in the drawer, if inquiries were made.

Almost another quarter of an hour had passed since the crisis had begun. Gregory saw no necessity for it ever to end. In himself the ointment had been a means to a certain progress and return, but Barbara had no will to either, and might, it seemed to him, exist for ever in this divided anguish of war. He wondered very much what the doctor would say.

Suddenly Barbara moved and stood up. Her voice began again its despairing appeals to God and Lionel, but her limbs began to dispose themselves in the preliminary motions of a dance. Gently at first, then more and more swiftly, her feet leapt upon the carpet; her arms tossed themselves in time to unheard music. Lionel made an effort to stop her, throwing one arm round her waist and catching her hands with the other; before his movement was complete she broke his hold and sent him staggering across the room. Gregory’s heart beat high; this then was the outer sign of the inner dance he had himself known: the ointment had helped him to seal his body while his soul entered ecstasy. But here the ointment gave the body helpless to the driving energy of the Adversary, and only through the screaming mouth a memory that was not conquered cried out to her lover and to her God.

Gregory heard a movement outside the door; there was a tap. But he was too absorbed to speak. Then the door opened and the village doctor stood in the opening. At the same moment, as if she had waited for it, Barbara, still moving in that wild dance, threw up her hand and, carelessly and unconsciously tore open her light frock and underwear from the breast downwards. It hung, a moment, ripped and rent, from the girdle that caught it together; then it fell lower, and she shook her legs free without checking the movement of the dance.

Even Gregory was not very clear afterwards what had then happened. It had needed the three of them to bring her into some sort of subordination, and to bind her with such material as could be obtained. The doctor’s next act was to inject morphia, a proceeding which Gregory watched with considerable pleasure, having his own views on what result this was likely to bring about. She was carried into one of the spare rooms at Cully, and Lionel took up his station there also. “They’ll put another bed in presently,” Gregory told him. “And my man Ludding will sleep in the next room, so if you want anything ask him. Good heavens, it’s not seven yet! Now, about Adrian . . . He shall sleep in my room if he likes, that will distract him, and he’ll feel important. Hush, hush, my dear fellow, we must all do what we can. The doctor’s coming in again later.”

The doctor indeed, after asking a few questions, and looking at the box of harmless ointment, had been glad to get away and think over this unusual patient. Gregory, having made inquiries, found that Adrian was out in the gardens with Jessie, and strolled out to find them, just preventing himself from whistling cheerfully in case Lionel should hear. It occurred to him that it would be pleasant before the child went to bed to see if anything could be discovered about the stranger who had disturbed him earlier, but whom, warm with his present satisfaction, he was inclined to neglect. Still . . .

He suggested, therefore, to Adrian — who had allowed himself to be persuaded how delightful it would be to sleep in his uncle’s own room, and that his mother had better be left alone that evening — that another game at hidden pictures would be pleasant. The cup they had used before was not, it seemed, possible, but there were other means.

Installed therefore on a chair in front of a table bearing a shining black disc arranged in a sloping position, Adrian said anxiously:

“Now ask me what I can see.”

Gregory leant back in his chair opposite, fixed his eyes on Adrian, made an image of the stranger in his mind, and said slowly: “Can you see a tall man, with a grey suit on, and a soft hat?” He imposed the image on the child’s mind.

With hardly any hesitation Adrian answered: “Oh, yes, I can see him. He’s on a horse, and ever so many other people are all round him on horses, with long, long sticks. They’re all riding along. Oh, it’s gone.”

Gregory frowned a little. A cavalry regiment? Was his visitor merely a lieutenant in the Lancers? He concentrated more than ever. “What is he doing now?” he asked.

“He’s sitting on cushions,” Adrian poured out raptly. “And there’s a man in red and a man in brown. They’re both kneeling down. Oh, they’re giving him a piece of paper. Now he’s smiling, now they’re going. It’s gone again,” he ended in a tone of high delight.

Gregory brooded over this for some minutes. “Where does he come from?” he asked. “Can you see water or trains?”

“No,” said Adrian immediately, “but I can see a lot of funny houses and a lot of churches too. He’s coming out of one of the churches. He’s got a beautiful, beautiful coat on! And a crown! and there are a lot of people coming out with him, and they’ve all got crowns and swords! and flags! Now he’s on a horse and there are candles all round him and funny things going round in the air and smoke. Oh, it’s gone.”

Gregory, as delicately and as soon as possible, broke off the proceedings. There was something here he didn’t understand. He sent Adrian off to bed with promises of pleasant amusements the next day, and himself, after a short visit to Lionel, went out again into the grounds to await the doctor’s second call. Barbara, it seemed, was lying still; he wondered what exactly was happening. If the morphia was controlling her limbs, what about the energy that had wrung them? If it couldn’t work outward, was it working inward? Was the inner being that was Barbara being driven deeper and deeper into that flow of desire which was the unity and compulsion of man? What an unusual experience for a charming young housewife of the twentieth century! And perhaps she also would not be able to return.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02