Lionel Rackstraw leant by the open window and looked out over the garden. Behind him Barbara lay, in stillness and apparent sleep; below him at some distance Mr. Gregory Persimmons contemplated the moon. In an ordinary state of mind Lionel might have contemplated it too, as a fantasy less terrible than the sun, which appeared to him often as an ironical heat drawing out of the earth the noxious phantoms it bred therein. But the phantoms of his mind were lost in the horrible, and yet phantasmal, evil that had befallen him; his worst dreams were, if not truer than they had always been — that they could not be-at least more effectual and more omnipotent. The last barricade which material things offered had fallen; the beloved was destroyed, and the home of his repose broken open by the malice of invisible powers. Had she been false, had she left him for another — that would have been tolerable; probably, when he considered himself, he had always felt it. What was there about him to hold, in the calm of intense passion, that impetuous and adorable nature? But this unpredictable madness, without, so far as could be known, cause or explanation, this was the overwhelming of humanity by the spectral forces that mocked humanity. He gathered himself together in a persistent and hopeless patience.
He took out his case and lit a cigarette mechanically. She, he supposed, would never smoke cigarettes again, or, if she did, it would never be the same. At the same time, that question of ways and means which is never far from the minds of the vast majority of the English at any moment, which poisons their sorrows and modifies their joys, which insists on being settled before any experience can be properly tasted, and, if unsatisfactorily settled (as it most frequently is), turns love and death into dancing parodies of themselves, which ruins personal relationship and abstract thought and pleasant hours — this question presented itself also to him. What about money? what about Adrian? what about their home? what about the future? He couldn’t look after Adrian; he couldn’t afford to keep Barbara and a housekeeper; besides, he couldn’t, he supposed, have a housekeeper to live in the same house with Adrian and himself — unless she were old enough. And how did you get old housekeepers, and what did you pay them? Barbara might get better, but obviously after such an attack she couldn’t for a long time be left alone with Adrian; and if she didn’t get better? She had an aunt somewhere in Scotland — a strong Calvinistic Methodist; Lionel cursed as he thought of Adrian growing up in a Calvinistic household. Not, his irony reminded him, that he wasn’t something of a Calvinist himself, with his feeling about the universe; but his kind of Calvinism wouldn’t want to proselytize Adrian, and the aunt’s would. He himself had no available relations — and his friends? Well, friends were all very well, but you couldn’t dump a child on your friends indefinitely. Besides, his best friends — Kenneth, for instance — hadn’t the conveniences. What a world!
Mr. Persimmons, turning from the moon, looked up at the house, saw him, waved a hand, and walked towards the door. It crossed Lionel’s mind that it would be very satisfactory if Adrian could stop at Cully. It was no use his saying that he had no right to think of it; his fancy insisted on thinking of it, and was still doing so when Gregory, entering softly, joined him at the window.
“All quiet?” he asked in a low voice.
“All quiet,” Lionel answered bitterly.
“It occurred to me,” Gregory said —“I don’t know, of course — but it occurred to me that you might be worrying over the boy. You won’t, will you? There’s no need. He can stop with me, here or in London, as long as ever you like. He likes me and I like him.”
“It’s very kind of you,” Lionel said, feeling at once that this would solve a problem, and yet that the solving it would leave him with nothing but the horror of things to deal with. Even such a worrying question as what to do with Adrian was a slight change of torment. But that, he reflected sombrely, was selfish. Selfish, good heavens, selfish! And, after a long pause he said again, “It’s very kind of you.”
“Not a bit,” Gregory answered. “I should even — in a sense — like it. And you must be free. It’s most unfortunate. It seems sometimes as if there was an adverse fate in things — lying in ambush.”
“Ambush?” Lionel asked, relieved yet irritated at being made to talk. What did people like Gregory know of adverse fate? “Not much ambush, I think. It’s pretty obvious, once one’s had a glimpse of the world.”
Religion normally has a mildly stupefying effect on the minds of its disciples, and this Gregory had not altogether escaped. He had thought it would give him half an hour’s pleasant relaxation to worry Lionel, and he had not realized that Lionel was, even in his usual state, beyond this. He went on accordingly: “There seems a hitch in the way things work. Happiness is always just round the corner.”
“No hitch, surely,” Lionel said. “The whole scheme of things is malign and omnipotent. That is the way they work. ‘There is none that doeth good — no, not one.”’
“It depends perhaps on one’s definition of good,” Gregory answered. “There is at least satisfaction and delight.”
“There is no satisfaction and no delight that has not treachery within it,” Lionel said. “There is always Judas; the name of the world that none has dared to speak is Judas.”
Gregory turned his head to see better the young face from which this summary of life issued. He felt perplexed and uncertain; he had expected a door and found an iron barrier.
“But,” he said doubtfully, “had Judas himself no delight? There is an old story that there is rapture in the worship of treachery and malice and cruelty and sin.”
“Pooh,” Lionel said contemptuously; “it is the ordinary religion disguised; it is the church-going clerk’s religion. Satanism is the clerk at the brothel. Audacious little middleclass cock-sparrow!”
“You are talking wildly,” Gregory said a little angrily. “I have met people who have made me sure that there is a rapture of iniquity.”
“There is a rapture of anything, if you come to that,” Lionel answered; “drink or gambling or poetry or love or (I suppose) satanism. But the one certainty is that the traitor is always and everywhere present in evil and good alike, and all is horrible in the end.”
“There is a way to delight in horror,” Gregory said.
“There is no way to delight in the horrible,” Lionel answered. “Let us pray only that immortality is a dream. But I don’t suppose it is,” he added coldly.
A silence fell upon them, and Gregory was suddenly conscious that he felt a trifle sick. He felt dizzy; he shut his eyes and leant against the wall to save himself lurching. Lionel’s face, as it looked out over the garden, frightened him; it was like a rock seen very far off. He opened his eyes and studied it again, then he glanced back over his shoulder at Barbara lying on the bed. This was Cully; Adrian was asleep in his room; he had overthrown Barbara’s mind. And now he was driven against something else, something immovable, something that affected him as if he had found himself suddenly in a deep pit of smooth rock. Lionel, who had been pursuing his own thoughts, began to speak suddenly, in the high voice of incantation with which he was given to quoting poetry,
“Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell,
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still gaping to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.“
Gregory stamped his foot, and managed to change it into a mere shifting of position. After all, he wasn’t going to quarrel with Lionel just now, though if he had time he would smash him into splinters. A clerk at a brothel!
“Well,” he said, “there’s just one thing I should like to say. If the doctor doesn’t seem much good when he comes, I have been thinking that I know an old man in London who’s seen some curious things and has funny bits of knowledge. I’ll get him on the telephone tomorrow and ask him to come down. He mayn’t be any good, but he may.”
“It’s really very kind of you,” Lionel said. “But how can anyone do anything?”
“Well, we shall see,” Gregory answered cheerfully. “Hallo, there is the doctor. And Sir Giles. Shall we go and meet them?”
Sir Giles, who had been out all day on an antiquarian visit, had run into the doctor at the gates. They walked up the drive a little distance apart, and at the door he made to annex Persimmons, who, however, put him aside till he had spoken with the doctor. A new examination of the patient brought no new light. The doctor, who refused to stay for the night, but promised to call again in the morning, went off. Lionel returned to his vigil, and Gregory, having patted him on the shoulder, and said cheerfully, “Well, well, don’t despair. We’ll ring up old Manasseh first thing,” went off with Sir Giles to his own room.
“What’s the idea?” Tumulty asked. “And who is old Manasseh, anyhow?”
“Ah, you don’t know everyone yet,” Gregory answered in high glee. “Pity you weren’t here; you’d have liked to see how Mrs. Rackstraw went on. Quite unusual, for an English lady. Unusual for an English doctor, too. Did you think he was a bit bewildered, Tumulty? But you’ll meet Manasseh in the morning.”
“Coming down, is he?” Sir Giles asked. “Well, there’s someone else down here too.”
“Yes,” Gregory said. “The masquerading fellow in grey? Now, if you can tell me who he is —”
“I knew you’d go mad,” Sir Giles said, with satisfaction. “What fellow in grey? I don’t know what hell’s clothes he was wearing, something from his own suburban tape-twister, I expect.”
“Why suburban?” Gregory asked. “He didn’t look to me like the suburbs. And what did he mean by his name being John?”
“His name may be Beelzebub,” Sir Giles answered, “but the man is that lump-cheeked inspector who’s trying to find out who committed the murder. He’s down here.”
Gregory stared. “What, that?” he said. “Why, I thought they’d dropped all that. There’s absolutely nothing to show — What does he want here?”
“Probably either me or you,” Sir Giles answered. “Well, I told you at the beginning, Persimmons, I’m going to damn well see to it he doesn’t have me. I don’t care what insane May dance you get up to, but I’m not going to be dragged in. If the police are after you, they can have you for all I care. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m off to Baghdad next week. And, if he asks me anything, I shall tell him.”
“Tell him that you told me you were going to ask Rackstraw to have lunch with you, so that the room —” Gregory began.
“Tell him you’ve been waking up in the night shrieking ‘blood, blood,’ if it’s necessary,” Sir Giles said. “The English police are corrupt enough, of course, but the trouble is one doesn’t know where they’re corrupt, and you may hit on the wrong man. Besides, I’ll see that lurching sewer-rat in Hinnom before I spend good money on him.”
“You’re making a ridiculous fuss,” Gregory said. “You don’t really think he’s got evidence?”
“I don’t care a curse,” Sir Giles answered. “You’re not interesting enough to run any risks for, Persimmons; you’re merely an overgrown hobbledehoy stealing beer — the drainings in other people’s pots. And I’m not going to have to poison myself for you. And now who’s this reptile in grey you’re bleating about?”
Gregory had grown used to neglecting half of Sir Giles’s conversation, but for a moment he remembered Lionel’s remark earlier in the evening, and looked nastily across at the other. However, he pulled himself in, and said carelessly, “Oh, a mad fellow we met in the drive. Talked like a clergyman and said he knew seventy kings.”
“Only seventy?” Sir Giles asked. “No other introduction?”
“I didn’t like him,” Gregory admitted, “and he made Ludding foam at the mouth. But he wasn’t doing anything except wander about the drive. He mentioned he was a priest and king himself.” He dropped his voice and came a little nearer. “I wondered at first whether he was anything to do with — the shop. You know what I mean. But somehow he didn’t fit in.”
Sir Giles sat erect. “Priest and king,” he said, half sceptically. “You’re sure you’re not mad, Persimmons?” He stood up sharply. “And his name was John?” he asked intently.
“He said so,” Gregory answered. “But John what?”
Sir Giles walked to the window and looked out, then he came back and looked with increasing doubt at Gregory. “Look here,” he said, “you take my advice and leave that damned bit of silver gilt trumpery alone. Ludding told me about your all going off after it. You may be up against something funnier than you think, Master Gregory.”
“But who is he?” Gregory asked impatiently yet anxiously. “What’s he got to do with the — the Graal?”
“I’m not going to tell you,” Sir Giles said flatly. “I never knew any good come of trying to pretend things mightn’t be when they might. I’ve heard tales — lies, very likely — but tales. Out about Samarcand I heard them and down in Delhi too — and it wasn’t the Dalai Lama either that made the richest man in Bengal give all he had to the temples and become a fakir. I don’t believe in God yet, but I wonder sometimes whether men haven’t got the idea of God from that fellow — if it’s the same one.”
“What have I to do with God?” Gregory said.
“I don’t know whether the Graal belongs to him or he belongs to the Graal,” Sir Giles went on, unheeding. “But you can trace it up to a certain point and you can trace it back from a certain point, and someone had it in between. And if it was he, you’d better go and ask the Archdeacon to pray for you — if he will.”
“Will you tell me who he is?” Gregory asked.
“No, I won’t,” Sir Giles said. “I’ve seen too much to chatter about him. You drop it, while there’s time.”
“I suppose it’s Jesus Christ come to look for His own property?” Gregory sneered.
“Jesus Christ is dead or in heaven or owned by the clergy,” Sir Giles answered. “But they say this man is what he told you — he is king and priest and his name is John. They say so. I don’t know, and I tell you I funk it.” He looked at the open window again.
“Well, run then,” Gregory said. “But I and my great lord will know him and meet him.”
“So you may, for me,” Sir Giles answered, and with no more words disappeared to his own room.
The child Adrian slept long and peacefully, and only his angel, in another state of the created universe, knew what his dreams were. But, except for him and the servants, the night was, for those in Cully, empty of sleep. Lionel lay on the couch that had been hastily made up, watching and listening for any movement from his wife. How far she slept none could tell. She lay motionless, but Lionel doubted, when he was near her, whether it were more than a superimposed and compulsory immobility. Her eyes were shut, but her breath trembled as if some interior haste shook it, and every now and then there issued from her lips a faint and barely perceptible moan, faint but profound. Lionel brooded over this companion of his way, torn apart into the depths of some jungle whose terror he could not begin to conceive. He himself would have been, to however small an extent, prepared; but that Barbara, with her innocent concentration on window-curtains and the novels of Mr. Wodehouse and Adrian’s meals, should be plunged into it, was a fatality against which even his pessimism felt the temptation to rebel.
Not far from his room Sir Giles also lay wakeful, considering episodes and adventures of his past. Brutal with himself no less than with others, he did not attempt to hide from himself that the new arrivals in the village caused him some anxiety. He had known, in his exploration of that zone of madness which encloses humanity, certain events which had been referred by those who had spoken of them to a mysterious power whose habitation was unknown and whose interference was deadly. Once indeed, in a midnight assembly in Beyrout, he had, he thought, dimly seen him; there had been panic and death, and in the midst of the shrinking and alarmed magicians a half-visible presence, clouded and angry and destructive. At the time he had thought that he also had been affected by a general hallucination, but he knew that hallucination was a word which, in these things, meant no more than that certain things seemed to be. Whether they were or not . . . he promised himself again to leave England as soon as possible, and to leave Cully certainly tomorrow.
Gregory, after some consideration, had dismissed Sir Giles’s warnings as, on the whole, silly. Things were going very well; by the next night he hoped that both the Graal and Adrian would be, for a while, in his hands or those of his friends. Of all those who lay awake under those midnight stars he was the only one who had a naturally religious spirit; to him only the unknown beyond man’s life presented itself as alive with hierarchical presences arrayed in rising orders to the central throne. To him alone sacraments were living realities; the ointment and the Black Mass, the ritual and order of worship. He beyond any of them demanded a response from the darkness; a rush of ardent faith believed that it came; and in full dependence on that faith acted and influenced his circumstances. Prayer was natural to him as it was not to Sir Giles or Lionel, or, indeed, to Barbara, and to the mind of the devotee the god graciously assented. Conversion was natural to him, and propaganda, and the sacrifice both of himself and others, if that god demanded it. He adored as he lay in vigil, and from that adoration issued the calm strength of a supernatural union. As the morning broke he smiled happily on the serene world around him.
Sir Giles took himself off after breakfast, leaving his small amount of luggage to be sent on. Gregory and Lionel left Ludding to call them if Barbara moved — a nurse was to arrive later — and went to the telephone in the hall. There, after some trouble, Gregory got through to his desired number and, Lionel gathered, to the unknown Manasseh. He explained the circumstances briefly, urging the other to take the next train to Fardles.
“What?” he asked in a moment. “Yes, Cully — near Fardles . . . Well, anything in reason, anything, indeed . . . What? I don’t understand . . . Yes, I know you did, but . . . No, but the point is, that I haven’t . . . Yes, though I don’t know how you knew . . . But I can’t . . . Oh, nonsense! . . . No, but look here, Manasseh, this is serious; the patient’s had some sort of fit or something . . . But you can’t mean it . . . Oh, well, I suppose so . . . But, Manasseh . . . But you wouldn’t . . . No, stop . . . ”
He put the receiver back slowly and turned very gravely to Lionel. “This is terrible,” he said. “You know that chalice I had? Well, I knew Manasseh wanted it. He thinks he can cure Mrs. Rackstraw, and he offers to try, if I’ll give him the chalice.”
“Oh, well,” Lionel said insincerely, “if he wants that — I suppose it’s very valuable? Too valuable for me to buy, I mean?”
“My dear fellow,” Gregory said, “you should have it without a second thought. Do you suppose I should set a miserable chalice against your wife’s health? I like and admire her far too much. But I haven’t got it. Don’t you remember I told you yesterday — but we’ve been through a good deal since then — the Archdeacon’s bolted with it. He insists that it is his, though Colonel Conyers is quite satisfied that it isn’t, and I really think the police might be allowed to judge. He and Kenneth Mornington and a neighbour of mine bolted with it — out of my own house, if you please! And now, when I’d give anything for it, I can’t get hold of it.” He stamped his foot in the apparent anger of frustrated desire.
The little violence seemed to break Lionel’s calm. He caught Gregory’s arm. “But must your friend have that?” he cried. “Won’t anything else in heaven or hell please him? Will he let Babs die in agony because he wants a damned wine-cup? Try him again, try him again!”
Gregory shook his head. “He’ll ring us up in an hour,” he said, “in case we can promise it to him. That’ll give him time to catch the best morning train to Fardles. But what can I do? I know the Archdeacon and Mornington have taken it to the Duke’s house. But they’re all very angry with me, and how can I ask them for it?” He looked up suddenly. “But what about you?” he said, almost with excitement. “You know Mornington well enough — I daren’t even speak to him; there was a row about that book yesterday at the office, and he misunderstood something I said. He’s rather — well, quick to take offence, you know. But he knows your wife, and he might be able to influence that Archdeacon; they’re very thick. Get on the ‘phone to him and try. Try, try anything to save her now.”
He wheeled round to the telephone and explained what he wanted to the local Exchange; then the two of them waited together. “Manasseh’s a hard man,” Gregory went on. “I’ve known him cure people in a marvellous way for nothing at all, but if he’s asked for anything he never makes any compromise. And he doesn’t always succeed, of course, but he does almost always. He works through the mind largely — though he knows about certain healing drugs he brought from the East. No English doctor would look at them or him, naturally, but I’ve never known an English doctor succeed where he failed. Understand, Rackstraw, if you can get the Archdeacon to see that he’s wrong, or to give up the chalice without seeing that he’s wrong, it’s yours absolutely. But don’t waste time arguing. I know it’s no good my arguing with Manasseh, and I don’t think it’s much good your arguing with the Archdeacon. Tell Mornington the whole thing, and get him to see it’s life or death — or worse than life or death. Beg him to bring it down here at once and we’ll have it for Manasseh when he comes. There you are; thank God they’ve been quick.”
In a torrent of passionate appeal Lionel poured out his agony through the absurd little instrument. At the other end Kenneth stood listening and horrified in the Duke’s study; the Duke himself and the Archdeacon waited a little distance “But what’s the matter with Babs?” Kenneth asked. “I don’t understand.”
“Nobody understands,” Lionel answered desperately. “She seems to have gone mad — shrieking, dancing — I can’t tell you. Can you do it? Kenneth, for the sake of your Christ! After all, it’s only a chalice — your friend can’t want it all that much!”
“Your friend seems to want it all that much,” Kenneth said, and bit his lips with annoyance. “No, sorry, Lionel, sorry. Look here, hold on — no, of course, you can’t hold on. But I must find the Archdeacon and tell him.” He held up a hand to stop the priest’s movement. “Tell me, what’s Babs doing now?”
“Lying down with morphia in her to keep her quiet,” Lionel answered. “But she’s not quiet, I know she’s not quiet, she’s in hell. Oh, hurry, Kenneth, hurry.”
Considerably shaken, Mornington turned from the telephone to the others. “It’s Barbara Rackstraw,” lie said, paused a moment to explain to the Duke, and went on. “Gregory’s been doing something to her, I expect; Lionel doesn’t know what’s the matter, but she seems to have gone mad. And that — creature has got a doctor up his sleeve who can put her right, he thinks, but he wants that—” He nodded at the Graal, which stood exposed in their midst, and went over the situation again at more length to make the problem clear.
Even the Archdeacon looked serious. The Duke was horrified, yet perplexed. “But what can we do?” he asked, quite innocently.
“Well,” Kenneth said restrainedly, “Lionel’s notion seemed to be that we might give him the Graal.”
“Good God!” the Duke said. “Give him the Graal! Give him that— when we know that’s what he’s after!”
Kenneth did not answer at once, then he said slowly: “Barbara’s a nice thing; I don’t like to think of Barbara being hurt.”
“But what’s a woman’s life — what are any of our lives — compared to this?” the Duke cried.
“No,” Kenneth said, unsatisfied, “no. . . . But Barbara . . . Besides, it isn’t her life, it’s her reason.”
“I am the more sorry,” the Duke answered. “But this thing is more than the whole world.”
Kenneth looked at the Archdeacon. “Well, it’s yours to decide,” he said.
During the previous day it had become evident in Grosvenor Square that a common spiritual concern does not mean a common intellectual agreement. The Duke had risen, the morning after the attack on the Graal, with quite a number of ideas in his mind. The immediate and chief of these had been the removal of the Graal itself to Rome, and its safe custody there. He urged these on his allies at breakfast, and by sheer force of simple confidence in his proposal had very nearly succeeded. The Archdeacon was perfectly ready to admit that Rome, both as a City and a Church, had advantages. It had the habit of relics, the higher way of mind and the lower business organization to deal with them. Rome was as convenient as Westminster, and the Apostolic See more traditional than Canterbury. But he felt that even this relic was not perhaps so important as Rome would inevitably tend to make it. And he felt his own manners concerned. “It would rather feel like stealing my grandmother’s lustres from my mother to give to my aunt,” he explained diffidently, noted the Duke’s sudden stiffening, and went on hastily: “Besides, I am a man under authority. It isn’t for me to settle. The Bishop or the Archbishop, I suppose.”
“The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final voice of authority still, isn’t it?” the Duke pointedly asked. “I know Southend is a Jew and one or two others are notorious polygamists — unofficially.”
“The Privy Council, as everybody knows, has no jurisdiction . . . ” Mornington began.
“There we go again,” the Archdeacon complained. “But, anyhow, so far as the suggestion is concerned, mere movement in space and time isn’t likely to achieve much. It couldn’t solve the problem, though it might delay it.”
“Well, what do you propose to do?” the Duke asked.
“I don’t know that I really thought of doing anything,” the Archdeacon answered. “It would be quite safe here wouldn’t it? Or we might simply put it in a dispatch-case and take it to the Left Luggage office at Paddington or somewhere. No,” he added hastily, “that’s not quite true. But you staunch churchpeople always make me feel like an atheist. Frankly, I think the Bishop ought to know — but he’s away till next week. So’s the Archbishop. And then there are the police. It’s all very difficult.”
There certainly were the police. Colonel Conyers made a call that morning; the Assistant Commissioner made a point of having tea with the Duchess, who was the Duke’s aunt, that afternoon. The Duke was at his most regal (ducal is too insignificant a word) with both. Neither of them were in a position to give wings to a colossal scandal by taking action unless forced to it by Mr. Persimmons, and Mr. Persimmons had returned to Cully, after reiterating to the Colonel his wish that public action should not be taken. To the Assistant Commissioner the Duke intimated that further attacks on the vessel had taken place.
“What, burglars?” the other said.
“Not burglars,” the Duke answered darkly. “More like black magic.”
“Really?” the Assistant Commissioner said, slightly bewildered. “Oh, quite, quite. Er — did anything happen?”
“They tried to destroy It by willing against It,” the Duke said. “But by the grace of God they didn’t succeed.”
“Ah . . . willing,” the other said vaguely. “Yes, I know a lot can be done that way. Though Baudouin is rather against it, I believe. You — you didn’t see anything?”
“I thought I heard someone,” the Duke answered. “And the Archdeacon felt It soften in his hands.”
“Oh, the Archdeacon!” the Assistant Commissioner said, and left it at that.
The whole day, in short, had been exceedingly unsatisfactory to the allies. The Duke and Mornington, in their respective hours of vigil before the sacred vessel, had endeavoured unconsciously to recapture some of their previous emotion. But the Graal stood like any other chalice, as dull as the furniture about it. Only the Archdeacon, and he much more faintly, was conscious of that steady movement of creation flowing towards and through the narrow channel of its destiny. And now when, on the next morning, he found himself confronted with this need for an unexpected decision he felt that he had not really any doubt what he would do. Still —”‘Wise as serpents’,” he said, “Let us be serpentine. Let us go to Cully and see Mrs. Rackstraw, and perhaps meet this very obstinate doctor.”
The Duke looked very troubled. “But can you even hesitate?” he asked. “Is anything worth such a sacrifice? Isn’t it sacrilege and apostasy even to think of it?”
“I do not think of it,” the Archdeacon said. “There is no use in thinking of it and weighing one thing against another. When the time comes He shall dispose as He will, or rather He shall be as He will, as He is.”
“Does He will Gregory Persimmons?” Kenneth said wryly.
“Certainly He wills him,” the Archdeacon said, “since He wills that Persimmons shall be whatever he seems to choose. That is not technically correct perhaps, but it is that which I believe and feel and know.”
“He wills evil, then?” Kenneth said.
“‘Shall there be evil in the City and I the Lord have not done it?’” the Archdeacon quoted. “But I feel certain He wills us to get down to Fardles. And of the rest we will talk later.”
Neither Kenneth nor the Duke accused the priest of evading the issue, for both of them felt he was speaking from a world of experience into which they had hardly entered. They fell back on the simpler idea that agony and evil were displeasing to God, but that He permitted them, and indeed Kenneth, at any rate, found it necessary, while he telephoned to Lionel their decision to come to Cully, and even on the way there, to keep this firmly in his mind as a counterbalance to the anxiety that he felt. For never before had he been confronted with the fact that certain strong and effective minds were ready and willing to inflict pain with or without a cause. He was becoming frightened of Gregory, and he naturally and inevitably therefore decided that Gregory was displeasing to God. It was his only defence; in such a crisis “if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him.”
Yet this, even up to the moment when they all met in the hall at Cully, Lionel had refrained from doing. That the universe was displeasing to him did not prove that a god existed who could save him from the universe. But the universe seemed sometimes to relax a little, to permit a little grace to be wrung from it; and he thought it barely possible that such small grace might be granted now. It was undignified to be so greedy, but it was for Barbara — he excused himself to his own scornful mind.
Manasseh had arrived before the other three, and had spent the interval chatting with Gregory in the hall. Persimmons had begged Lionel so earnestly not to make any attempt to moderate his terms, and had seemed to have such a belief in and such a respect for his skill and obstinacy, that Lionel had easily fallen in with the suggestion. Cully had been placed so entirely at his disposal; the chalice itself had been — or was to be-his to yield to Manasseh; his anxiety about Adrian had been reduced; lastly, the possibility of a cure for Barbara had been so wholly Gregory’s idea that prudence as well as gratitude demanded so much. He remained therefore, rather to the annoyance of the nurse, who had come by the same train as Manasseh, in Barbara’s room, wondering whether the occasional flicker of movement he seemed to discern in her was real or only the suggestion of his own hope or fear.
Manasseh chatted with Gregory, and as the two paced the hall their sympathy with Lionel and Barbara seemed considerably lightened. “It only needs two things,” Gregory said. “You must be firm when the other people come, and you ought to be able to do something to make Rackstraw think his wife is getting over it.”
“Trust me to be firm,” Manasseh answered. “As for the other — I think I can do that too. I’ve got some stuff that will send her into the heaviest sleep she’s ever known; morphia’s nothing to it. And it’ll last for forty-eight hours or so. By then we can be away.”
“I wonder if we’ve done wisely, after all,” Gregory said. “But I don’t altogether trust the way things are shaping here. They carry heavy guns, with the Duke — and Tumulty tells me the police haven’t dropped that killing yet.”
“What — Pattison?” Manasseh asked in surprise. “But Dimitri told me that he thought you’d managed that very well. He was sent to you, wasn’t he?”
“He was sent from within,” Gregory said. “It was made clear to me that I must kill, and he happened to be getting difficult. He did a pretty little piece of forgery for me once and played up well. But a few months ago he came across a Wesleyan mission-preacher and began to get troublesome. I was going to send him to Canada — but the other chance seemed too good to lose. So it was that.”
Manasseh looked at him approvingly. “You will find soon,” he said, “that possession is nothing besides destruction. We will go together to the East, and take the child and the Cup with us. And we will leave this madness behind us — and perhaps something else. We will talk with Dimitri. I should like to leave a memory of us with that priest.”
There was a ring at the front door. Ludding, who had been told to be in attendance, came through to open it. At the other end of the hall Gregory and Manasseh turned to meet their guests, and Ludding, almost achieving irony, cried out in the voice of a herald: “The Duke of the North Ridings, the Archdeacon of Fardles, Mr. Mornington.”
They entered, the Archdeacon carrying a small case, from which Persimmons carefully kept his eyes averted. They entered, and he said to Ludding: “Ask Mr. Rackstraw to come down.” Then, as the man went away, he went on: “It is better that Mr. Rackstraw, and Dr. Manasseh here, and you should settle what is to be done. I have given over to Mr. Rackstraw all my interest in the chalice.”
The Archdeacon bowed formally and looked at Manasseh. Immediately afterwards Lionel came down the stairs to join them, nodded to Kenneth, and was introduced by Gregory to Manasseh. Then Persimmons went on: “I’ll leave you to discuss it for a few minutes. But one way or another the thing should be settled at once.” He turned away up the stairs and along the corridor from which Lionel had come.
He went, indeed, straight to the room where Barbara lay, chatted for a moment or two with the nurse, who was about to dress the wound, and then went over to the bed, where he paused to look down on her.
“Poor dear,” he said thoughtfully, “and on her holiday, and in such glorious weather!”
“It seems to make it worse somehow, doesn’t it, sir?” the nurse said, Mr. Persimmons of Cully being obviously an important personage. Gregory shook his head and sighed. “Yes,” he said, “it’s very sad, very. And we have fine country here, too. You know it — no? Oh, you must. In your breaks you’ll use my car as much as you want, won’t you? Now, over there,” he went on, drowning the nurse’s hesitating thanks, “they say you can almost see the top of the spire of Norwich Cathedral,”
“Norwich!” the nurse said, surprised and turning to look out of the window.
“They say!” Gregory said, half-laughing, and running his finger down the long, unhealed wound twice and again. “But I admit I’ve never seen it. However, I mustn’t delay you now. Perhaps you’ll let me take you for a run one afternoon.”
He smiled, nodded, left the room, and strolled back along the corridor to the top of the stairs.
“ . . . moral decency demands it,” the Duke was saying. “I am not concerned with all that,” Manasseh answered, more truthfully than any but Gregory knew. “I have told you that from what Mr. Persimmons has told me I am sure I can heal Mrs. Rackstraw. But I must have my price. Unless I have it I will not act.”
“There are English doctors,” the Duke said coldly.
“Yes,” Manasseh said, “you have tried one. Well, as you like —”
Gregory frowned. It was the Duke again, he supposed. But he himself dared not interfere; that would probably make matters worse, for he was suspect to all save Lionel. Well, he would have Adrian, anyhow; the other must be tried for again. But another five minutes might make a difference; he hoped Manasseh wouldn’t rush things. Lionel and Kenneth were speaking together; the Archdeacon was imperceptibly drawn in, and the other two awaited their decision.
“I cannot buy it,” Lionel broke out; “I have no possible excuse for asking for it. I ought not to have told you even. But I have told you, and there is an end to it.”
“No, but, Lionel —” Kenneth began.
“Mr. Rackstraw,” the Archdeacon interrupted, “the end to it is very simple. For myself, I would not have delayed so long. I would give up any relic, however wonderful, to save anyone an hour’s neuralgia — man depends too much on these things. But, having friends, I felt only —”
He stopped. For from above the shrieks that had shaken Cully the previous night had suddenly begun again. The nurse came flying to the stairs, crying, “She’s up, and I can’t hold her. Help! help!” But almost at the same instant Barbara was there too, her face wild with an appalling fear, her arms wide and clutching, her voice shrieking incomprehensible things, of which the group in the hall caught only the wild words: “The edge! the edge!” and then again, “I can’t stop! The edge, the edge!” Gregory sprang as if to check her; she was past him and rushing down the stairs. Lionel and Kenneth met her as she came, and were flung aside by the irresistible energy that held her. The Duke, horrified, took an unintentional step back and crashed into the Archdeacon, so that Manasseh ran forward alone towards the foot of the stairs. The voice now was beyond description terrible, and still she cried, “The edge, the edge!” and still was hurled blindly forward. And then, at the very height of the agonizing moment, when it seemed that some immediate destruction must rend her whole being, of a sudden the voice faltered and stopped. As Manasseh closed upon her she paused, stumbled, and in one long gentle movement seemed to collapse towards the floor. He had her before she reached it, but, as his eyes momentarily met Gregory’s, there appeared in them a great perplexity. In a second or two they were all around her; Lionel and Kenneth moved with her to one of the long seats scattered about the hall and laid her gently down, and Manasseh bent over her. She seemed, as she lay there, almost as if asleep; asleep in that half-repose, half-collapse, which follows prolonged strain. A few tears crept from her closed eyes; her body shook a little, but as if from the mere after-effects of agony, not in the stiff spasms of agony itself. Manasseh straightened himself, and looked round at the others. “I think it is over,” he said. “It will need time and patience, but the will is caught and brought back. Her mind will now be safe — now or presently, I cannot tell to a few days. There may be another slighter outbreak, but I do not think so.” He drew a small bottle from his pocket.
“Give her two drops of this — not more — in a wineglass of water when she wakes, and once every twelve hours afterwards. I will come down again the day after tomorrow.”
Kenneth giggled hysterically. Manasseh’s speech had an insane likeness to any doctor concluding a visit. Of course, doctors were all the same, but the Archdeacon’s black case, the anguish they had seen in Barbara’s face, seemed to demand a more exalted conclusion. His giggle passed unnoticed, however, for the Archdeacon was holding the case out to Manasseh. “This is what you wanted, I think,” he said, paused a moment, and added as he turned to the door, “But no bargain yet brought anyone near to the Graal or to the heart of its Lord.” He bowed slightly to Manasseh and slightly to Persimmons and walked out.
On the steps he waited for his friends. They followed him at once, the Duke taking no notice of anyone, Kenneth with a murmur to Lionel; and the three looked at each other. “Well,” the Archdeacon said, “I shall go back to the Rectory. Will you come with me or what?”
“No,” the Duke said. “Our trust has been ended. I go back to the Castle. Will you come with me for a night or two, Mornington, as you meant to?”
Kenneth considered. He would have to see about getting a job, but a day or two first could do no harm. And if by any wild chance the Duke should really want a secretary . . . But he tried to suppress the idea. “I think I will,” he said. “I should like to hang round till I knew Barbara was well again.”
“I don’t see that we can do anything if she isn’t,” the Duke said. “We’ve lost all our assets.”
“Assets?” the Archdeacon asked. “‘The sacred and glorious Graal’? Oh, really, my dear Duke!”
The Duke looked a little embarrassed; his remark had been really irritable, not judicial. But he said stubbornly: “We could have pretended to bargain, at least.”
They had begun walking down the drive, and the Archdeacon made no answer for a minute or two. Then he said, “I will not bargain any more for anything, if I can help it. How can one bargain for anything that is worth while? And what else is worth bargaining for?”
“If one bargained for nothing, would everything be worth while?” Kenneth said, but more as a dream than a question.
They came to the gates and paused; then the Archdeacon said cheerfully to Kenneth, “Well, if you run over to see Mrs. Rackstraw in the next day or two, you’ll look in on me? I must relieve Batesby-and the parish,” he added as an afterthought.
“Certainly I will,” Kenneth said, shaking hands. The Duke followed suit, saying a little sadly, “I suppose this is the end.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” the Archdeacon answered. “If I were Manasseh, I shouldn’t trust the Graal too far. But he probably thinks it important.”
By the way he was clutching the case, he probably did. Gregory and Lionel, not wanting to disturb Barbara’s profound sleep, inserted pillows and cushions under and round her, and then, while Lionel sat down close at hand, Gregory walked over to Manasseh.
“You did that very well,” he said softly. “Or — didn’t you do it?”
Manasseh hesitated; then, his face a little troubled, he answered, “No; and that’s what makes me wonder. I thought I could do it one way or another, but she stopped first. I could have drowned her knowledge, and instead she seemed to know something else. It was as if she found everything all right, even on the very edge of the pit.”
“‘He shall give His angels charge over her,’” Gregory said. “Perhaps He managed it in time. They’ve usually been rather late. My wife, and Stephen, and even poor dear Pattison. But it doesn’t matter.”
“No,” Manasseh said, and then suddenly, “But I don’t like her getting away. She was on the very edge of destruction; she might have been torn to bits there — and she wasn’t. Is she really safe? Can we try the ointment again?”
“No, we can’t,” Gregory said. “Don’t be a fool. You’ve got the Cup, take it with you, and, unless something hinders me, I’ll be with you to-night. To-morrow certainly, but I think to-night. You won’t do anything till I come?”
“No,” Manasseh answered. “You shall bring the child and we will talk with Dimitri. We win.”
“Praise to our lord,” Gregory said. But Manasseh smiled and shook his head. “He is the last mystery,” he murmured, “and all destruction is his own destroying of himself.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02