War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

Chapter Four

The First Attempt on The Graal

The Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum returned to Fardles and his rectory on the next morning, for a few days’ clearing up before he went on his holiday. After he had spent an hour or two in his study, he got up suddenly, and, going out of the house, took the private path that led through his garden and the churchyard to the small Norman Church. The memory of the article he had read in Mornington’s office had grown more dominating as he returned to the place where, if Sir Giles Tumulty were right, the Graal, neglected and overlooked, stood in his sacristy. No one had ever seen the Archdeacon excited, not even when, in the days of his youth, he had assisted his friends to break up a recruiting meeting in the days of the Boer War; and even now he yielded to himself as he might have yielded to a friend’s importunities, and went along the path rather with an air of humouring a pleasant but persistent visitor than with any eagerness of his own.

The church stood open, as it always did, from the early celebration till dusk. The verger was at the moment engaged on the Archdeacon’s roses, and, since Fardles lay off the main road, it was rarely that it was visited by strangers. Fardles itself indeed lay a little way distant from the church, the nearest houses being about a quarter of a mile off and the main street of the village beginning another quarter of a mile beyond them. The railway station formed the third corner of an equilateral triangle, with the village and the church at the angles of its base. On the other side of the base a similar triangle was formed by the grounds of the late Sir John Horatio Sykes–Martindale’s house. The house itself — Cully, as it was called, to the Archdeacon’s secret and serious delight, and without any distress to the naturally ignorant Sir John — lay in the middle of its grounds; an enormous overbuilt place, of no particular age and no particular period. And beyond it, towards the apex of this second triangle, lay the empty cottage of which Mr. Gregory Persimmons had spoken to Lionel.

The Archdeacon went into the church and passed on into the sacristy. He unlocked and opened the tall and antique chest in which the sacred vessels were kept, lifted one of them out, and, carrying it back into the church, set it upon the altar. Then he stood and looked at it carefully.

It was old enough, that appeared certain; it was plain enough too, almost severe. The drinking cup itself was some six inches in depth, with a stem in proportion, and a small pedestal which was carried by slowly narrowing work up some distance of the stem. The whole was about fifteen or sixteen inches high. There were, so far as the Archdeacon could see, no markings, no ornamentation, except for a single line, about half an inch below the rim. It was made of silver, so far as he could tell, slightly dented here and there, but still apparently good for a considerable amount of use. It stood there on the altar, as it had done so many mornings, until the grief of Lady Sykes–Martindale had enriched the late Vicar’s sacristy with a new gold chalice. And the Archdeacon stood and considered it.

Of course, the thing was not impossible. He did not remember Sir Giles’s article accurately enough to know the stages by which the archaeologist had traced the Graal from Jerusalem to Fardles: here a general tradition, there a local rumour, a printed paragraph or an unpublished MS., even the remnants of an old tapestry or a carving in a remote Town Hall. He could see clearly that it might all be nothing but a fantasy of peculiar neatness, and he attached little importance to the vessel itself. But he was conscious that a great many people might attach a good deal of importance to it if there were any truth in the story. If it were the Graal, what would they want to do with it? He considered with pleasure that at least it was in the hands of the officials of the Church, and that there were some things that even officials of the Church could not do. They could not, for example, sell it to a millionaire. But why, the Archdeacon asked himself, should he object to it being sold to a millionaire?

He was about to restore the vessel to the sacristy when he asked himself this question, and stayed for a moment or two with it in his hands. Then he changed his mind, went and locked the door of the cabinet, and came back to the altar. “Ah, fair sweet Lord,” he said half-aloud, “let me keep this Thy vessel, if it be Thy vessel; for love’s sake, fair Lord, if Thou hast held it in Thy hands, let me take it into mine. And, if not, let me be courteous still to it for Thy sake, courteous Lord; since this might well have been that, and that was touched by Thee.” He smiled a little, took up the chalice, and went back to the Rectory.

There he passed straight to his own pleasant bedroom and opened an inner door which led to a small room, once perhaps a dressing-room. It was furnished now with a pallet-bed, a hard chair or two, a table, and a kneeling-desk. On one otherwise empty wall a crucifix hung; a small shelf in one corner held a few books, and there were one or two more on the table. The window in one of the pair of shorter walls looked out over the graveyard towards the church. The Archdeacon went across to the mantelshelf, set down his burden, looked at it for a minute or two, murmured a prayer, and went down to lunch.

After lunch he walked for a little while in his garden. His locum tenens, a rather elderly clergyman whom the Archdeacon thoroughly disliked, but who needed the money that the temporary post would bring him, was not due till the next day. The Archdeacon felt a pain, slight but definite, at the idea that this tall, lean, harassed, talkative, and inefficient priest would sit in his chair and sleep in his bed; not so much that they were his chair and his bed as that it seemed a shame that such ready and pleasant things should be subjected to the invasion of human futility. He put out his hand and touched a flower, then withdrew it. “I am becoming sentimental,” he thought to himself. “How do I know that a chair is full of goodwill, or a bed anxious to please? They may be, but they mayn’t. Their life is hidden with Christ in God. Oh, give thanks to the God of all gods,” he sang softly, “for His mercy endureth for ever.”

“Mr. Davenant?” said a voice at his back.

The Archdeacon, a little startled, turned. A large man whose face he dimly remembered was looking over the garden gate.

“Er — yes,” he said vaguely, “that is, yes. I am Mr. Davenant.”

“Mr. Archdeacon, I suppose I ought to say,” the other went on agreeably. “I knew I was wrong as soon as I’d spoken.”

“Not at all,” the Archdeacon answered. “You wanted to see me? Come in, won’t you?” He opened the gate for the stranger, who, as he entered, uttered a word of thanks and went on: “Well, I did, rather. My name is Persimmons, Gregory Persimmons. I’ve just bought Cully, you know, so we shall be neighbours. But I understand from the village talk that you’re going away tomorrow, and I didn’t come today merely for a neighbourly call.”

“Whatever the reason-” the Archdeacon murmured. “Shall we go inside or would you rather sit down over there?” He indicated a garden-seat among the flowers.

“Oh, here, by all means,” Persimmons said. “Thank you.” He accepted a cigarette. “Well the fact is, Mr. Archdeacon, I have come as a beggar and yet not a beggar. I have come to beg for another and pay for myself.”

The Archdeacon put a finger to his glasses. The word Persimmons had taken him back to the previous day’s visit to Mornington; and he was asking himself whether this was the voice that had been offering advice on how to train children. There was something about this last sentence also that offended him.

“I know a priest,” Persimmons proceeded, “who is in bad need of some altar furniture, especially the sacred vessels, for a new mission church he’s starting. Now, I was talking to one and another down here — the grocer’s an ardent churchman, I find. And one of your choir-boys, and so on — as one does. And I gathered — you’ll tell me if I’m wrong — that you had an extra chalice here which you didn’t often use. So I wondered, as you have the set that Lady Sykes–Martindale gave, whether you’d consider letting me have it at a reasonable price, for my friend.”

“I see,” the Archdeacon said. “Yes, quite. I see what you mean. But, if you’ll forgive me asking, Mr. Persimmons, surely a new chalice would be better than a — shall I say, second-hand one?” He threw a deprecating smile at Gregory and loosed an inner secret smile to Christ at the epithet.

“My friend,” Persimmons said, leaning comfortably back and lazily smoking, “my friend hates new furniture for an altar. He has some kind of theory about stored power and concentrated sanctity which I, not being a theologian, don’t profess to understand. But the result of it is that he infinitely prefers things that have been used for many years in the past. Perhaps you know the feeling?”

“Yes, I know the feeling,” the Archdeacon said. “But in this instance I’m afraid it can’t be rewarded. I’m afraid the chalice is not to be parted with.”

“It’s natural you should say that,” the other answered, “for I expect I’ve put it clumsily, Mr. Archdeacon. But I hope you’ll think it over. Of course, I know I’m a stranger, but I want to feel part of the life here, and I thought if I could send out a — a sort of magnetic thrill by buying that chalice for my friend . . . and I’d be glad to buy another for you if you wanted it replaced . . . I thought . . . I don’t know . . . I thought . . . ”

His voice died away, and he sat looking half-wistfully out over the garden, the portrait of a retired townsman trying to find a niche for himself in new surroundings, shy but good-hearted, earnest if a little clumsy, and trying not to touch too roughly upon subjects which he seemed to regard with a certain ignorant alarm. The Archdeacon shot a glance at him, and after a minute’s silence shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Persimmons, but that chalice is not for sale. But perhaps I can do something for you. Over in your direction, some eight miles beyond you, there’s a church which I think has exactly the kind of thing you want. I know that recently they had an altar set up in their Lady Chapel, replaced the vessels at the High Altar, and bought fresh ones for the other two. If the Vicar hasn’t given his old ones away yet, he’s the very man for you — and he hadn’t a week ago, because I was over there. I’ll give you a note of introduction to him if you like — he’s a nice fellow; he’s one of the old Rushforths, you know: they’re a side branch of the Herberts. A good old Anglican family, one might say. His Christian name’s Herbert — a very pleasant fellow. Devoted to the Church, too. Fasts in Lent and all that kind of thing, I believe; and they do say he hears confessions — but I don’t want to take any notice of that unless I’m driven to. It wouldn’t matter, of course, I couldn’t do anything — that’s the great charm of being an Archdeacon, one never can. But there’s a certain prestige and so on, and I don’t want to throw that, for what it’s worth, against him. Herbert Rushforth, yes, I’ll certainly give you a note. Or, even better — I have to go out that way? probably? possibly — this evening, and I’ll call on him and ask him myself. And, if he has them still, he’ll be delighted for you to have them; you needn’t mind in the least — he’s extremely well-to-do. He’ll want to leave them at Cully tomorrow, and perhaps he will. Even if you don’t want to take them over personally, as, of course, you may, he could have them sent to your friend. Where did you say his church was?” The Archdeacon, a fountain-pen in his hand, a slip of paper on his knee, looked pleasantly and inquiringly at Mr. Persimmons, and all round them the flowers gently stirred.

Mr. Persimmons was a little taken back. There had not appeared to him to be any conceivable reason why the Archdeacon should refuse to part with the old chalice, and if by any chance there had been any difficulty he had still expected to be able to obtain sight of it, to see what it looked like and where it was kept. He found himself at the moment almost, it seemed, on the other side of the county from Fardles, and he did not immediately see any way of getting back. He thought for a moment of making his imaginary clerical friend a native of Fardles, in order to give him a special delight in things that came from there, but that was too risky.

“Oh, well,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I think I won’t give you his name. He might be rather ashamed of not being able to buy the necessary things. That was why, I thought, if you and I could just quietly settle it together, without bringing other people in, it would be so much better. A clergyman doesn’t like to admit that he’s poor, does he? And that was why —”

Damnation! he thought, he was repeating himself. But the Archdeacon’s fantastic round face and gold glasses were watching him with a grave attention, and where but now had been a steady flow of words there was an awful silence. “Well,” he said, with an effort at a leap across the void, “I’m sorry you can’t let me have it.”

“But I’m offering it to you,” the Archdeacon said. “You didn’t want the Fardles chalice particularly, did you?”

“Only as coming from the place where I was going to live,” Persimmons said, and added suddenly: “It just seemed to me as if, as I was leaving my friend myself, I was sending him something better instead, something greater and stronger and more friendly.”

“But you were talking about a chalice,” the Archdeacon objected perplexedly. “How do you mean, Mr. Persimmons — finer and stronger and so on?”

“I meant the chalice,” Gregory answered. “Surely that —”

The Archdeacon laughed good-naturedly and shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said, “no. Not the chalice alone. Why, if it were the Holy Graal itself,” he added thoughtfully, replacing the cap on his fountain-pen and putting it away, “you could hardly say that about it.” He stood up, a little disappointed at not having noticed any self-consciousness about the other when he had mentioned the Graal. “Well,” he said, “I must apologise, but you will understand I have some work to do; I’m going tomorrow, as you say. Will you forgive me? And shall I speak to Rushforth?”

“If you will be so good,” Persimmons answered. “Or, no, don’t let me take up your time. I will go and see him, if I may mention you name? Yes, I assure you I would rather. Good afternoon, Mr. Archdeacon.”

“Good afternoon,” the Archdeacon said. “I shall see you often when I return, I hope.”

He accompanied his visitor to the gate, chatting amicably. But when Persimmons had gone he walked slowly back towards the house, considering the discussion thoughtfully. Was there a needy mission church? and was his visitor to be its benefactor? And the chalice? It seemed possible, and even likely, in this fantastic dream of a ridiculous antiquary, that the Graal of so many romances and so long a quest, of Lancelot and Galahad and dim maidens moving in antique pageants of heraldry and symbolism and religion, the desire of Camelot, the messenger of Sarras, the relic of Jerusalem, should be resting neglected in an English village. “Fardles,” he thought, “Castra Parvulorum, the camp of the children: where else should the Child Himself rest?” He reentered the Rectory, singing again to himself: “Who alone doeth marvellous things; for his mercy endureth for ever.”

It was the custom of the parish that there should be a daily celebration at seven, at which occasionally in summer a small congregation assembled. Before this, at about a quarter to seven, the Archdeacon was in the habit of saying Morning Prayer publicly, as he was required to do by the rubrics. Once a week, on Thursday mornings, he was assisted by the sexton; on the other mornings he assisted himself. As, however, the sexton with growing frequency overslept himself, the Archdeacon preferred to keep the key of the church himself, and it was with this in his hand that he came to the west door about half-past six the next morning. At the door, however, he stopped, astonished. For it hung open and wrenched from the lock, wrenched and broken and pushed back against the other wall. The Archdeacon stared at it, went closer and surveyed it, and then hastened into the church. A few minutes gave him the extent of the damage. The two boxes, for the Poor and for the Church, that were fixed not far from the font, had also been opened, and their contents, if they had any, looted; the candlesticks on the altar had been thrown over, the candles in them broken and smashed, and the frontal pulled away and torn. In the sacristy the lock of the cabinet had been forced and the gold chalice which commemorated the late Sir John had disappeared, together with the gold paten. On the white-washed wall had been scrawled a few markings —“Phallic,” the Archdeacon murmured, with a faint smile. He came back to the front door in time to see the sexton at the gate of the churchyard, and, judiciously lingering on the footpath beyond, two spasmodically devout ladies of the parish. He waved to them all to hurry, and when they arrived informed them equably of the situation.

“But, Mr. Archdeacon —” Mrs. Major cried.

“But, Mr. Davenant —” Miss Willoughby, who, as being older, both in years and length of Fardles citizenship, than most of the ladies of the neighbourhood, permitted herself to use the personal name. And “Who can have done it?” they both concluded.

“Ah!” the Archdeacon said benignantly. “A curious business, isn’t it?”

“Isn’t it sacrilege?” said Mrs. Major.

“Was it a tramp?” asked Miss Willoughby.

“What we want is Towlow,” the sexton said firmly. “Towlow isn’t at all bad at finding things out, though, being a Wesleyan Methodist, as he calls himself, he can’t be expected to want to find out these bloody murderers. I’ll go and get him, shall I, sir?”

“How fortunate my brother’s staying with me,” Mrs. Major cried out. “He’s in the Navy, you know, and quite used to crime. He even sat on a court-martial once.”

Miss Willoughby, out of a wider experience, knew better than to commit herself at once. She watched the Archdeacon’s eyes, and, as she saw them glaze at these two suggestions, ventured a remote and disapproving “H’m, h’m!” Even the nicest clergymen, she knew, were apt to have unexpected fads about religion.

“No,” the Archdeacon said, “I don’t think we’ll ask Towlow. And though, of course, I can’t object to your brother looking at these damaged doors, Mrs. Major, I shouldn’t like him to want to make an arrest. Sacrilege is hardly a thing a priest can prosecute for — not, anyhow, in a present-day court.”

“But —” Mrs. Major and the sexton began.

“The immediate thing,” the Archdeacon flowed on, “is the celebration, don’t you think? Jessamine”— this to the sexton-“will you move those candlesticks and get as much of the grease off as you can? Mrs. Major, will you put the frontal straight? Miss Willoughby, will you do what you can to set the other ornaments right? Thank you, thank you. Fortunately the other chalice is at the rectory; I will g go and get it.” Then he paused a moment. “And perhaps,” he said gravely, “as these two boxes have been robbed, we may take the advantage to restore something.” He moved from one box to the other, dropping in coins, and a little reluctantly the two ladies imitated him. Jessamine was already at the altar.

As the Archdeacon walked up to the house he allowed himself to consider the possibilities. The breaking open of the west door pointed to a more serious attack than that of a casual tramp; tramps didn’t carry such instruments as this success must have necessitated. But, if a tramp were not the burglar, then the money in the boxes had not been the aim. The gold chalice, then? Possible, possible: or the other chalice, the one of whose reputed history, except for that quarter of an hour in Mornington’s room, he would have known nothing — could that be the aim? After all, the man who wrote the book — what was his name? — might have mentioned it, mentioned it to anyone, to a collector, to a millionaire, to a frenzied materialist. But one wouldn’t expect them to try burglary at once. He saw in the distance the garden-seat where he had sat in talk the previous afternoon. And had they? Or had they tried purchase? Persimmons — Stephen Persimmons, publisher —Christianity and the League of Nations— a mission church in need? sacrilege — phallic scrawls.

He came into the inner room where he had looked at the chalice before he went out that morning, and as he came in it seemed to meet him in sound. A note of gay and happy music seemed to ring for a moment in his ears as he paused in the entrance. It was gone, if it had been there, and gravely he genuflected in front of the vessel and lifted it from its place. Carrying it as he had so often lifted its types and companions, he became again as in all those liturgies a part of that he sustained; he radiated from that centre and was but the last means of its progress in mortality. Of this sense of instrumentality he recognized, none the less, the component parts — the ritual movement, the priestly office, the mere pleasure in ordered, traditional, and almost universal movement. “Neither is this Thou,” he said aloud, and, coming to the garden door, looked round him. In the hall the clock struck seven; he heard his housekeeper moving upstairs; as he came out into the garden he saw on the road a few men on their way to work. Then suddenly he saw another man leaning over the gate as Persimmons had leant the previous afternoon; only this was not Persimmons, though a man not unlike him in general height and build. The man opened the gate and came into the garden, though not directly in the path to the churchyard gate, and on the sudden the Archdeacon stopped.

“Excuse me, mister,” a voice said, “but is this the way to Fardles?” He pointed down the road.

“That is the way, yes,” the Archdeacon answered. “Keep to the right all the way.”

“Ah, thankee,” the stranger said. “I’ve been walking almost all night — nowhere to go and no money to go with.” He was standing a few yards off. “Excuse me coming in like this, but seeing a gentleman —”

“Do you want something to eat?” the Archdeacon asked.

“Ah, that’s it,” said the other, eyeing him and the chalice curiously. “Reckon you’ve never been twenty-four hours without a bite or sup.” He took another step forward.

“If you go round to the kitchen you shall be given some food,” the Archdeacon said firmly. “I am on my way to the church and cannot stop. If you want to see me I will talk to you when I come back.” He lifted the chalice and went on down the path and through the churchyard.

The Mysteries celebrated, he returned, still carefully carrying the chalice, and set it out of sight in a cupboard in the breakfast-room. When his housekeeper came in with coffee he asked after the stranger.

“Oh yes, sir, he came round,” she said, “and I gave him some food. But he didn’t eat much, to my thinking, and he was off again in ten minutes. Those folk don’t want breakfast, money’s what they’re after. He wouldn’t stop to see you, not after I told him you might get him a job. Money, that’s what he wanted, not a job, nor breakfast, either.”

But the Archdeacon absurdly continued to doubt this. He had felt, all through the short conversation in the garden, that it was not himself, but the vessel that the stranger had been studying — and that not with any present recognition, but as if he were impressing it on his memory. His train went at half-past nine; it was now half-past eight. But the train was out of the question; he had to explain the state of the church to the locum tenens; he had to go over to Rushforth, not now for Persimmons, but for his own needs. And, above all, he had to decide what to do with that old, slightly dented chalice that was hidden in the cupboard of the breakfast-room of an English rectory.

The first thing that occurred to him was the bank; the second was the Bishop. But the nearest bank was five miles off; and the Bishop was probably thirty-five, at the cathedral city. He might be anywhere, being a young and energetic and modern Bishop, who organized the diocese from railway stations, and platforms at public meetings before and after speaking, and public telephone-boxes, and so on. The Archdeacon foresaw some difficulty in explaining the matter. To walk straight in, and put down the chalice, and say: “This is the Holy Graal. I believe it to be so because of a paragraph in some proofs, a man who tried to buy it for a mission church and said that children ought to be taught not to do wrong, a burglary at my church, and another man who asked the way to Fardles”— would a young, energetic, modern Bishop believe it? The Archdeacon liked the Bishop very much, but he did not believe him to be patient or credulous.

The bank first then, and Rushforth next. And, in a day or two, the Bishop. Or rather first a telegram to Scotland. He sat down to write it, meaning to dispatch it from the station when he took the train to town. Then he spent some time in looking out a leather case which would hold the chalice, and had indeed been used for some such purpose before. He ensconced the Graal — if it were the Graal — therein, left a message with his housekeeper that he would be back some time in the afternoon, and by just after nine was fitting his hat on in the hall.

There came a knock at the door. The housekeeper came to open it. The Archdeacon, looking over his shoulder, saw the stranger who had invaded his garden that morning standing outside.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the stranger said, “but is the reverend gentleman in? Ah, to be sure, there he is. You see, sir, I didn’t want to worry you over your breakfast, so I went for a bit of a walk. But I hope you haven’t forgotten what you said about helping me to find work. It’s work I want, sir, not idleness.”

“You didn’t seem that keen on it when you were talking to me about it,” the housekeeper interjected.

“I didn’t want to forestall his reverence,” the stranger said. “But anything that he could do I’d be truly grateful for.”

“What’s your name?” the Archdeacon asked.

“Kedgett,” the other answered, “Samuel Kedgett. I served in the war, sir, and here —”

“Quite,” the Archdeacon answered. “Well, Mr. Kedgett, I’m sorry I can’t stop now; I have to go to town most unexpectedly. Call”— he changed “this evening” into “tomorrow morning”—“and I’ll see what can be done.”

“Thank you, sir,” the other said, with a sudden alertness. “I’ll be there. Good-bye, sir.” He was out of the porch and down the garden path before his hearers were clear that he was going.

“What a jumpy creature!” the housekeeper said. “Dear me, sir, I hope you’re not going to give him work here. I couldn’t stand, a man like that.”

“No,” the Archdeacon said absently, “no, of course, you couldn’t. Well, good-bye, Mrs. Lucksparrow. Explain to Mr. Batesby when he comes, won’t you? I shall be back in the afternoon probably.”

Along the country lane on the other side of the churchyard there was little to be seen beyond the fields and pleasant slopes of the country twenty miles out of North London. The Archdeacon walked along, meditating, and occasionally turning his head to look over his shoulder. Not that he seriously expected to be attacked but he did feel that there was something going on of which he had no clear understanding. “How vainly men themselves amaze,” he quoted, and allowed himself to be distracted by trying to complete the couplet with some allusion to the high vessel. He produced at last, as he came to a space where four roads met and as he went on through what was called a wood, but was not much more than a copse — he produced as a result:

How vainly men themselves divert,

Even with this chalice, to their hurt!

and heard a motor-car coming towards him in the distance. It was coming very quietly from the direction of the station, and in a few minutes it came round the curve of the road. He saw someone stand up in it and apparently beckon to him, quickened his steps, heard a faint voice calling: “Archdeacon! Archdeacon!” felt a sudden crash on the back of his head, and entered unconsciousness.

The car drew up by him. “Quick, Ludding, the case,” Mr. Persimmons said to the man who had slipped from the wood in the Archdeacon’s rear. He caught it to him, opened it, took out the chalice, and set it in another case which stood on the seat by him. Then he gave the empty one back to Ludding. “Keep that till I tell you to throw it away,” he said. “And now help me lift the poor fellow in. You have a fine judgement, Ludding. Just in the right place. You didn’t hit too hard, I suppose! We don’t want to attract attention. A little more this way, that’s it. We have some brandy, I think. I will get in with him.” He did so, moving the case which held the Graal. “Can you put that with the petrol-tin, Ludding? Good! Now drive on carefully till we come to the cross-roads.”

When, in a few moments, they were there, “Now throw the case into the ditch,” Persimmons went on, “over by that clump, I think. Excellent, Ludding, excellent. And now round up to the Rectory, and then you shall go on to the village or even the nearest town for a doctor. We must do all we can for the Archdeacon, Ludding. I suppose he was attacked by the same tramp that broke into the church. I think perhaps we ought to let the police know. All right; go on.”


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