"I CAN'T see a thing," said Jane.
"This rain is spoiling the whole plan," said Dimble from the back seat. "Is this still Eaton Road, Arthur?"
"I think . . . yes, there's the toll-house," said Denniston, who was driving.
"I say!" said Jane suddenly. "Look! Look! What's that? Stop."
"I can't see a white gate," said Denniston.
"Oh, it's not that," said Jane. "Look over there."
"Do you mean that light?" said Denniston.
"Yes, of course, that's the fire."
"It's the light," she said, " the fire in the hollow. Yes, I know: I never told Grace, or the Director. I'd forgotten that part of the dream till this moment. That was how it ended. It was the most important part. That was where I found him-Merlin, you know. Sitting by a fire in a little wood. After I came out of the place underground. Oh, come quickly!"
"What do you think, Arthur?" said Dimble.
"I think we must go wherever Jane leads," answered Denniston.
"Oh, do hurry," said Jane. "There's a gate here. It's only one field away."
All three of them crossed the road and opened the gate and went into the field. Dimble said nothing. He had, perhaps, a clearer idea than the others of what sort of things might happen when they reached the place.
Jane, as guide, went first, and Denniston beside her, giving her his arm and showing an occasional gleam of his torch on the rough ground. Dimble brought up the rear.
The change from the road to the field was as if one had passed from a waking into a phantasmal world. They realised that they had not really believed in Merlin till now. They had thought they were believing the Director in the kitchen; but they had been mistaken. Out here, with only the changing red light ahead and the black all round, one began to accept as fact this tryst with something dead and yet not dead, something exhumed from that dark pit of history which lies between the ancient Romans and the beginning of the English. "The Dark Ages," thought Dimble; how lightly one had read and written those words.
Suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested-little Christian sites, Gamalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury-a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning a stone's-throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled, endless woods; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies' blood.
Then came a check. They had walked right into a hedge. They had come to the end of a field. They went a long way out of their course before they found a gate. It would not open, and as they came down on the far side, after climbing it, they went ankle-deep into water.
Hitherto Jane had scarcely attempted to think of what might lie before them. As they went on, the real meaning of that scene in the kitchen began to dawn on her. He had told the men to bid goodbye to their wives. He had blessed them all. It was likely, then, that this-this stumbling walk on a wet night across a ploughed field- meant death. Jane was trying to see death in the new light of all she had heard since she left Edgestow. She had long ceased to feel any resentment at the Director's tendency, as it were, to dispose other-to give her, at one time or in one sense, to Mark, and in another to Maleldil; never in any sense to keep her for himself. But Maleldil. Up to now she had not thought of Maleldil either. She did not doubt that the eldils existed; nor did she doubt the existence of this stronger and more obscure being whom they obeyed . . . whom the Director obeyed, and through him the whole household, even MacPhee. If it had ever occurred to her to question whether all these things might be the reality behind what she had been taught at school as " religion ", she had put the thought aside. But this time, if it was really to be death, the thought would not be put aside. Because it now appeared that almost anything might be true. One might be in for anything. Maleldil might be, quite simply and crudely, God. There might be a life after death: a Heaven: a Hell. "But . . . this is unbearable," she thought, "I should have been told."
"Look out, Jane," said Denniston. "That's a tree."
"I-I think it's a cow," said Jane.
"No. It's a tree. Look. There's, another."
"Hush," said Dimble. "This is Jane's little wood. We are very close now."
The ground rose in front of them for about twenty yards and there made an edge against the firelight. They walked slowly and quietly up to the edge and stopped. Below them a big fire of wood was burning at the bottom of a little dingle. There were bushes all about, whose changing shadows, as the flames rose and fell, made it difficult to see clearly. Beyond the fire there seemed to be some rude kind of tent made out of sacking and an upturned cart. In the foreground there was a kettle.
"Is there anyone here?" whispered Dimble to Denniston.
"Look!" said Jane suddenly. "There! When the flame blew aside."
"What?" said Dimble.
"Didn't you see him?"
"I thought I saw a man," said Denniston.
"I saw an ordinary tramp," said Dimble. "A man in modern clothes."
"What did he look like?"
"I don't know."
"We must go down," said Dimble.
"Can one get down?" said Denniston.
"Not this side," said Dimble. "It looks as if a sort of path came into it over there to the right."
Cautiously they began to skirt the lip of the hollow, stealing from tree to tree.
"Stop!" whispered Jane suddenly.
"What is it?"
"There's something moving."
"In there. Quite close."
"Wait a moment," said Denniston. "It's just there. Look!-damn it, it's only an old donkey!"
"That's what I said," said Dimble. _"The man's a gypsy; a tinker or something. This is his donkey. Still, we must go down."
And in less than a minute all three walked down into the dingle and past the fire. And there was the tent, and a few miserable attempts at bedding inside it, and a tin plate, and some matches on the ground, and the dottle of a pipe, but they could see no man.
"What I can't understand, Wither," said Fairy Hardcastle, " is why you don't let me try my hand on the young pup. All these ideas of yours are so halfhearted keeping him on his toes about the murder, arresting him, leaving him all night in the cells to think it over. Twenty minutes of my treatment would turn his mind inside out. I know the type."
Miss Hardcastle was talking, at about ten o'clock that same wet night, to the Deputy Director in his study. There was a third person present-Professor Frost.
"I assure you, Miss Hardcastle," said Wither, fixing his eyes not on her but on Frost's forehead, " you need not doubt that your views on this, or any other matter, will always receive the fullest consideration. But you must excuse me for reminding you-not, of course, that I assume you are neglecting the point-that we need the woman-I mean, that it would be of the greatest value to welcome Mrs. Studdock among us-chiefly on account of the remarkable psychical faculty she is said to possess. In using the word psychical, I am not, you understand, committing myself to any particular theory."
"You mean these dreams?"
"It is very doubtful," said Wither, " what effect it might l have on her if she were brought here under compulsion and then found her husband-ah-in the markedly, though no doubt temporarily, abnormal condition which we should have to anticipate as a result of your scientific methods of examination. One would run the risk of a profound emotional disturbance on her part."
"We have not yet had Major Hardcastle's report," said Professor Frost quietly.
"No good," said the Fairy. "He was shadowed into Northumberland. Only three possible people left the College after him-Lancaster, Lyly, and Dimble. I put them in that order of probability. Lancaster is a Christian, and a very influential man. He's in the Lower House of Convocation. He had a lot to do with the Repton "Conference". He has a real stake in their side. Lyly is rather the same type, but less of an organiser. Both are dangerous men. Dimble is quite a different type. Except that he's a Christian, there isn't much against him. He's purely academic. Impractical . . . he'd be too full of scruples to be much use to them."
"You should tell Major Hardcastle that we have access to most of these facts already," said Professor Frost.
"Perhaps," said Wither, " in view of the late hour---"
"Well," said the Fairy, "I had to follow all three. With the resources I had at the moment. You'll realise young Studdock was seen setting off for Edgestow only by good luck. It was a bomb-shell. Half my people were already busy. I had to lay my hands on anyone I could get. I posted a sentry and had six others out of sight of the College, in plain clothes. As soon as Lancaster came out I told off the three best to keep him in sight. We may be on to something there. I sent the next two of my lads to deal with Lyly. Dimble came out last. I would have sent my last man to follow him, but a call came through at that moment from O'Hara, who wanted another car. So I sent my man up with the one he had. Dimble can be got any time. He comes into college pretty regularly; and he's a nonentity."
"I do not quite understand," said Frost, " why you had no one inside the College to see what staircase Studdock went to."
"Because. of your damned Emergency Commissioner," said the Fairy. "We're not allowed into colleges now, if you please. I said at the time that Feverstone was the wrong man. He's trying to play on both sides."
"I am far from denying," said Wither, " though without at all closing my mind to other possible explanations, that some of Lord Feverstone's measures may have been injudicious. It would be inexpressibly painful to me to suppose that--"
"Need we keep Major Hardcastle?" said Frost.
"Bless my soul!" said Wither. "How very right of you! I had almost forgotten, my dear lady, how tired you must be, and how very valuable your time is." He got up and held the door open for her.
"You don't think," said she, " that I ought to let the boys have just a little go at Studdock?"
And suddenly, as Wither stood with his hand on the door handle, the whole expression faded out of his face. Miss Hardcastle had the feeling that a mere mask of skin and flesh was staring at her. A moment later she was gone.
"I wonder," said Wither as he came back to his chair, " whether we are attaching too much importance to this Studdock woman."
"Allow me to remind you of the facts," said Frost. "The authorities had access to the woman's mind for only a very short time. They inspected only one important dream-which revealed, though with some irrelevancies, an essential element in our programme. That warned us that if the woman fell into the hands of any ill-affected persons who knew how to exploit her faculty, she would constitute a grave danger."
"Oh, to be sure, to be sure. I never intended to deny--"
"That was the first point," said Frost. "The second is that her mind became opaque to our authorities immediately afterwards. We know only one cause for such occultations. They occur when the mind in question has placed itself, by some voluntary choice, however vague, under the control of some hostile organism. The occultation, therefore, while cutting off our access to the dreams, also tells us that she has come under enemy influence. It also means that to find her would probably mean discovering the enemy's headquarters. Miss Hardcastle is probably right in maintaining that torture would soon induce Studdock to give up his wife's address. But as you pointed out, a round-up at their headquarters, an arrest, and the discovery of her husband here in the condition in which the torture would leave him, would produce psychological conditions in the woman which might destroy her faculty. That is the first objection. The second is, that an attack on enemy headquarters is very risky. They almost certainly have protection of a kind we are not prepared to cope with. And, finally, the man may not know his wife's address. In that case . . ."
"Oh," said Wither, " there is nothing I should more deeply deplore. Scientific examination (I cannot allow the word Torture in this context) in cases where the patient doesn't know the answer is always a mistake. As men of humanity we should neither of us ... and then, if you go on, the patient naturally does not recover. . . ."
"There is, in fact, no way of implementing our instructions except by inducing Studdock to bring his wife here himself."
"Or else," said Wither, a little more dreamily than usual, "if it were possible, by inducing in him a much more radical allegiance to our side than he has yet shown. I am speaking, my dear friend, of a real change of heart."
"I was saying that he must be induced to send for the woman himself. That can be done in two ways. Either by supplying him with some motive on the instinctive level, such as fear of us or desire for her; or else by conditioning him to identify himself so completely with the Cause that he will understand the real motive for securing her person and act on it."
"Exactly . . . exactly," said Wither. "Where is Studdock at present?" said Frost. "In one of the cells."
"Under the impression he has been arrested by the ordinary police?"
"I presume he would be."
"And how are you proposing to act?"
"We had proposed to allow the psychological results of the arrest to mature. I have ventured . . . of course, with every regard for humanity ... to reckon on the value of some slight discomforts- he will not have dined, you understand. They have instructions to empty his pockets. One would not wish the young man to relieve any nervous tension by smoking."
"Of course. And what next?"
"Well, I suppose some sort of examination. I am inclined to think that the appearance of examination by the ordinary police should be maintained a little longer. Then at a later stage will come the discovery that he is still in our hands. It would be well to let him realise only gradually that this by no means frees him from the-er-embarrassments arising out of Hingest's death. I take it that some fuller realisation of his inevitable solidarity with the Institute would then follow. . . ."
"The weakness is that you are relying wholly on fear."
"Fear," repeated Wither as if he had not heard the word before. "I do not quite follow the connection of thought. I can hardly suppose you are following the opposite suggestion, once made, if I remember, by Miss Hardcastle."
"What was that?"
"Why," said Wither, " if I understand her right she thought of taking scientific measures to render the society of his wife more desirable to him. Some of the chemical resources ..."
"You mean an aphrodisiac?" Wither sighed gently and said nothing. "That is nonsense," said Frost. "It isn't to his wife that a man turns under the influence of aphrodisiacs. But as I was saying, I think it is a mistake to rely wholly on fear. But there are other alternatives. There is desire."
"I am not sure that I am following you. You have rejected the idea of any medical or chemical approach."
"I was thinking of stronger desires." Neither at this stage of the conversation nor at any other did the Deputy Director look much at the face of Frost. But either Frost or Wither-it was difficult to say which- had been gradually moving his chair, so that by this time the two sat with their knees almost touching.
"I had my conversation with Filostrato," said Frost. "I used expressions which must have made my meaning clear if he had any notion of the truth. His assistant, Wilkins, was present. The truth is, neither is really interested. What interests them is the fact that they have succeeded-as they think-in keeping the Head alive and getting it to talk. What it says does not really interest them. As to any question about what is really speaking, they have no curiosity."
"You are suggesting, if I understand," said Wither, "a movement towards Mr. Studdock along those lines. I need hardly say that I fully realise a certain disappointment which serious minded people must feel with such colleagues as Filostrato."
"That is the point," said Frost. "One must guard against supposing that the political and economic dominance of England by the N.I.C.E. is more than a subordinate object: it is individuals we are really concerned with. A hard core of individuals really devoted to the cause- that is what we need and are under orders to supply. We have not succeeded so far in bringing many people in- really in."
"There is still no news from Bragdon Wood?"
"And you believe that Studdock might really be a suitable person?"
"You must not forget," said Frost, " that his value does not rest solely on his wife's clairvoyance. The couple are eugenically interesting. And I think he can offer no resistance. The hours of fear in the cell, and then an appeal to desires that undercut the fear, will have an almost certain effect on a character of that sort."
"Of course," said Wither, " nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity. Any fresh individual brought into that unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction-to-ah-all concerned. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive-to absorb- ; to assimilate this young man."
They were now sitting so close together that their faces ; almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Suddenly there was a crash. Who's Who had fallen off the table, swept on to the floor as, with sudden, swift convulsive movement, the two old men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape. And as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter.
When Mark was bundled out of the police wagon and left at length alone in a little lighted room, he had no idea that he was at Belbury. Nor would he have cared greatly if he had known, for the moment he was arrested he had despaired of his life. He was going to be hanged.
There came a sudden uprush of grisly details about execution, supplied long since by Miss Hardcastle.
Because he felt that he was choking, he looked round the cell for any sign of ventilation. There was, in fact, some sort of grating above the door. All else was white floor, white ceiling, white wall, without a chair or table or peg, and one hard white light in the centre of the ceiling.
Something in the look of the place now suggested to him for the first time the idea that he might be at Belbury and not in an ordinary police station. But the flash of hope aroused by this idea was so brief as to be instantaneous. What difference did it make whether Wither and Miss Hardcastle and the rest decided to get rid of him by handing him over to the ordinary police or by making away with him in private? They were all his enemies, playing upon his hopes and fears to reduce him to servility, certain to kill him if he broke away, and certain to kill him in the long run when he had served the purpose for which they wanted him. It appeared to him astonishing that he could ever have thought otherwise.
What a fool-a babyish, gullible fool-he had been!
Why had he come to Belbury in the first instance ? Ought not his first interview with the Deputy Director to have warned him. Feverstone's guffaw, that day he had called him an " incurable romantic ", came back to his mind. Feverstone . . . that was how he had come to believe in Wither: on Feverstone's recommendation. Apparently his folly went farther back. How on earth had he come to trust Feverstone? Jane, or Dimble, would have seen through him at once. He had crook written all over him. He was fit only to deceive puppets like Curry and Busby. But then, at the time when he first met Feverstone, he had not thought Curry and Busby puppets. With astonishment he remembered how he had felt about the Progressive Element at Bracton when he was first admitted to its confidence. Was there no beginning to his folly? Had he been a fool all through from the day of his birth ? Even as a schoolboy, when he had ruined his work and half broken his heart trying to get into the society called Grip, and lost his only real friend in doing so ? Even as a child, fighting Myrtle because she would go and talk secrets with Pamela next door?
There were no moral considerations at this moment in Mark's mind. He looked back on his life, not with shame but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness. He saw himself as a little boy in short trousers, hidden in the shrubbery beside the paling to overhear Myrtle's conversation with Pamela, and trying to ignore the fact that it was not at all interesting when overheard. He saw himself making believe that he enjoyed those Sunday afternoons with the athletic heroes of Grip, while all the time (as he now saw) he was almost homesick for one of the old walks with Pearson
-Pearson whom he had taken such pains to leave behind. He saw himself in his teens laboriously reading rubbishy grown-up novels and drinking beer when he really enjoyed John Buchan and stone ginger. The hours that he had spent learning the slang of each new circle, the assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the sacrifice of nearly every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element, or the N.I.C.E. -all this came over him with a kind of heartbreak. When had he ever done what he wanted ? Mixed with the people whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The concentrated insipidity of it all filled him with self-pity.
In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. None of these occurred to him now. He was aware that it was he himself who had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.
An unexpected idea came into his head. This-this death of his-would be lucky for Jane. He now knew, for the first time, what he had secretly meant to do with Jane. If all had succeeded, if he had become the sort of man he hoped to be, she was to have been the great hostess. Well ... it was lucky for Jane. She seemed to him, as he now thought of her, to have in herself deep wells and knee-deep meadows of happiness, rivers of freshness, enchanted gardens of leisure, which he could not enter but could have spoiled. She was one of those other people-like Pearson, like Denniston, like the Dimbles-who could enjoy things for their own sake. She was not like him. It was well that she should be rid of him. Of course she would get over it. She had tried to do her best, but she didn't really care for him. Nobody ever had, much.
At that moment came the sound of a key turning in the lock of the cell-door. Instantly physical terror rushed back upon him.
It was not a policeman who came in. It was a man whose pince-nez, as he glanced towards the light, became opaque windows concealing his eyes. Mark knew him at once and knew that he was at Belbury. It was not this that made him open his own eyes even wider and almost forget his terror in his astonishment. It was the change in the man's appearance-or rather the change in the eyes with which Mark saw him. In one sense everything about Professor Frost was as it had always been-the pointed beard, the extreme whiteness of forehead, and the bright Arctic smile. But Mark could not understand how he had ever managed to overlook something about the man so obvious that any child would have shrunk away from him and any dog would have backed into the corner with raised hackles and bared teeth. Death itself did not seem more frightening than the fact that only six hours ago he would in some measure have trusted this man, and made believe that his society was not disagreeable.
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