THE SARACEN'S HEAD
"IT was the worst dream I've had yet," said Jane next morning. She was in the Blue Room with the Director and Grace Ironwood. "I was in a dark room," said Jane, " with queer smells and a humming noise. Then the light came on, and for a long time I didn't realise what I was looking at. I thought I saw a face floating in front of me. A face, not a head, if you understand. That is, there was a beard and nose and coloured glasses, but there didn't seem to be anything above the eyes. Not at first. But as I got used to the light, I thought the face was a mask tied on to a kind of balloon. But it wasn't, exactly. . . . I'm telling this badly. What it really was, was a head (the rest of a head) which had had the top part of the skull taken off and then . . . then ... as if something inside had boiled over. A great big mass which bulged out from inside what was left of the skull. Wrapped in some kind of composition stuff, but very thin stuff. You could see it twitch. I remember thinking, ' Oh, kill it. Put it out of its pain.' But only for a second, because I thought the thing was dead, really. It was green looking and the mouth was wide open and quite dry. And soon I saw that it wasn't floating. It was fixed up on some kind of bracket, and there were things hanging from it. From the neck, I mean. Yes, it had a neck, but nothing below: no shoulders or body. Only these hanging things. Little rubber tubes and bulbs and metal things."
"You're all right, Jane, are you?" said Miss Ironwood. "Oh yes," said Jane, "as far as that goes. Only one somehow doesn't want to tell it. Well, quite suddenly, like when an engine is started, there came a puff of air out of its mouth, with a hard, dry, rasping sound. And then there came another, and it settled down into a sort of rhythm- huff, huff, huff--like an imitation of breathing. Then came a most horrible thing: the mouth began to dribble. Then it began working its mouth about and even licking its lips. It was like someone getting a machine into working order. Then three people came into the room, all dressed up in white, with masks on. One was a great fat man, and another was lanky and bony. The third was Mark. I knew his walk."
"I am sorry," said the Director.
"And then," said Jane, "all three of them stood in front of the Head. They bowed to it. You couldn't tell if it was looking at them because of its dark glasses. Then it spoke."
"In English?" said Grace Ironwood. "No, in French."
"What did it say?"
"Well, my French wasn't quite good enough to follow it. It spoke in a queer way. With no proper expression."
"Did you understand any of what was said?"
"Not much. The fat man seemed to be introducing Mark to it. It said something to him. Then Mark tried to answer. I could follow him all right, his French isn't much better than mine."
"What did he say?"
"He said something about ' doing it in a few days if possible'." , -
"Was that all?"
"Very nearly. You see Mark couldn't stand it. I knew he wouldn't be able to: I saw he was going to fall. He was sick too. Then they got him out of the room." All three were silent for a few seconds. "Was that all?" said Miss Ironwood. "Yes," said Jane. "That's all I remember. I think I woke up then."
The Director took a deep breath. "Well!" he said, glancing at Miss Ironwood, " it becomes plainer and plainer. We must hold a council this evening. Make all arrangements." He paused and turned to Jane. "I am afraid this is very bad for you, my dear," he said; "and worse for him."
"You mean for Mark, sir?"
"Yes. Don't think hardly of him. He is suffering. If we are defeated we shall all go down with him. If we win we will rescue him; he cannot be far gone yet. We are quite used to trouble about husbands here, you know. Poor Ivy's is in jail."
"Oh yes-for ordinary theft. But quite a good fellow. He'll be all right again."
Mark woke next morning to the consciousness that his head ached all over . . . and then, as one of the poets says, he " discovered in his mind an inflammation swollen and deformed, his memory ". Oh, but it had been a nightmare, it must be shoved away, it would vanish away now that he was fully awake. It was an absurdity. A head without any body underneath. A head that could speak when they turned on the air and the artificial saliva with taps in the next room.
But he knew it was true. And he could not, as they say, " take it". He was very ashamed of this, for he wished to be considered one of the tough ones.
Meantime he must get up. He must do something about Jane. Apparently he would have to bring her to Belbury. His mind had made this decision for him at some moment he did not remember. He must get her, to save his life. They would kill him if he annoyed them; perhaps behead him. . . .
It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical-merely "Modern ". The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.
He was late for breakfast, but that made little difference, for he could not eat. He drank several cups of black coffee and then went into the writing-room. Here he sat for a long time drawing things on the blotting paper. This letter to Jane proved almost impossible now that it came to the point.
"Hullo, Studdock!" said the voice of Miss Hardcastle. "Writing to little wifie, eh?"
"Damn!" said Mark. "You've made me drop my pen." Not since he had been bullied at school had he known what it was to hate and dread anyone as he now hated and dreaded this woman.
"I've got bad news for you, sonny," she said presently. "What is it?"
She did not answer quite at once and he knew she was studying him.
"I'm worried about little wifie, and that's a fact," she said at last.
"What do you mean?"
"I looked her up," said Miss Hardcastle, "all on your account, too. I thought Edgestow wasn't too healthy a place for her to be at present."
"Can't you tell me what's wrong?"
"Don't shout, honey. It's only-well, I thought she was behaving pretty oddly when I saw her."
Mark well remembered his conversation with his wife on the morning he left for Belbury. A new stab of fear pierced him. Might not this detestable woman be speaking the truth?
"What did she say?" he asked.
"If there is anything wrong with her in that way," said the Fairy, " take my advice Studdock, and have her over here at once. I wouldn't like to have anyone belonging to me popped into Edgestow Asylum. Specially now that we're getting our emergency powers. They'll be using the ordinary patients experimentally you know. If you'll just sign this form I'll run over after lunch and have her here this evening."
"But you haven't given me the slightest notion what's wrong with her."
"She kept on talking about someone who'd broken into your flat and burned her with cigars. Then, most unfortunately, she noticed my cheroot, and, if you please, she identified me with this imaginary persecutor. Of course, after that I could do no good."
"I must go home at once," said Mark, getting up.
"Don't be a fool, lovey," said Miss Hardcastle. "You're in a damn dangerous position already. You'll about do yourself in if you're absent without leave now. Send me. Sign the form. That's the sensible way to do it."
"But a moment ago you said she couldn't stand you at any price."
"Oh, that wouldn't make any odds. I say, Studdock, you don't think little wifie could be jealous, do you?"
"Jealous? Of you?" said Mark with uncontrollable disgust.
"Where are you off to?" said the Fairy sharply.
"To see the D.D. and then home."
"Come back, Studdock," shouted the Fairy. "Wait! Don't be a bloody fool."But Mark was already in the hall. He put on his hat and coat, ran upstairs and knocked at the door of the Deputy Director's office.
There was no answer, but the door was not quite shut. He ventured to push it open a little farther, and saw the Deputy Director sitting with his back to the door. "Excuse me, sir," said Mark. "Might I speak to you for a few minutes." There was no answer. "Excuse me, sir," said Mark in a louder voice, but the figure neither spoke nor moved. Mark went in and walked round to the other side of the desk; but when he turned to look at Wither he caught his breath, for he thought he was looking into the face of a corpse. A moment later he recognised his mistake. In the stillness of the room he could hear the man breathing. He was not even asleep, for his eyes were open. He was not unconscious, for his eyes rested momentarily on Mark and then looked away. "I beg your pardon, sir," began Mark, and then stopped. The Deputy Director was not listening. What looked out of those pale, watery eyes was, in a sense, infinity-the shapeless and the interminable. The room was still and cold. It was impossible to speak to a face like that.
When at -last Mr. Wither spoke, his eyes were fixed on some remote point beyond the window.
"I know who it is," said Wither. "Your name is Studdock. You had better have stayed outside. Go away."
Mark's nerve suddenly broke. All the slowly mounting fears of the last few days ran together into one fixed determination, and a few seconds later he was going downstairs three steps at a time. Then he was crossing the hall. Then he was out, and walking down the drive.
He was out of the grounds now: he was crossing the road. He stopped suddenly. Something impossible was happening. There was a figure before" him; a tall, very tall, slightly stooping figure, sauntering and humming a little dreary tune; the Deputy Director himself. And in one moment all that brittle hardihood was gone from Mark's mood. He turned back. He stood in the road; this seemed to him the worst pain that he had ever felt. Then, tired, so tired that he felt his legs would hardly carry him, he walked very slowly back into Belbury.
Mr. MacPhee had a little room at the Manor which he called his office, and in this tidy but dusty apartment he sat with Jane Studdock before dinner that evening, having invited her there to give her what he called "a brief, objective outline of the situation ".
"I should premise at the outset, Mrs. Studdock," he said, " that I have known the Director for a great many years and that for most of his life he was a philologist. His original name was Ransom."
"Not Ransom's Dialect and Semantics?" said Jane. "Aye. That's the man," said MacPhee. "Well, about six years ago, I have all the dates in a wee book there- came his first disappearance. He was clean gone-not a trace of him-for about nine months. And then one day what does he do but turn up again in Cambridge and go sick. And he wouldn't say where he'd been except to a few friends."
"Well?" said Jane eagerly.
"He said," answered MacPhee, producing his snuff-box and laying great emphasis on the word said, "He said he'd been to the planet Mars."
"You mean he said this . . . while he was ill?"
"No, no. He says so still. Make what you can of it, that's his story."
"I believe it," said Jane. MacPhee selected a pinch of snuff.
"I'm giving you the facts," he said. "He told us he'd been to Mars, kidnapped, by Professor Weston and Mr. Devine- Lord Feverstone as he now is. And by his own account he'd escaped from them-on Mars, you'll understand-and been wandering about there alone."
"It's uninhabited, I suppose?"
"We have no evidence except his own story. You are aware, Mrs. Studdock, that a man in complete solitude even on this earth-an explorer, for example- gets into remarkable states of consciousness."
"You mean he might have imagined things that weren't there?"
"I'm making no comments," said MacPhee. "I'm recording. By his accounts there are all kinds of creatures walking about there; that's maybe why he has turned this house into a sort of menagerie, but no matter for that. But he also says he met one kind of creature there which specially concerns us. He called them eldils."
"Were these things . . . well, intelligent? Could they talk?"
"Aye. They could talk. They were intelligent, which is not always the same thing."
"In fact these were the Martians?"
"That's just what they weren't, according to him. They were on Mars, but they didn't rightly belong there. He says they are creatures that live in empty space."
"But there's no air."
"I'm telling you his story. He says they don't breathe. He said also that they don't reproduce their species and don't die."
"What on earth are they like?"
"I'm telling you how he described them."
"Are they huge?" said Jane almost involuntarily.
"The point, Mrs. Studdock, is this. Dr. Ransom claims that he has received continual visits from these creatures since he returned to Earth. So much for his first disappearance. Then came the second. That time he said he'd been in the planet Venus-taken there by these eldils."
"Venus is inhabited by them, too?"
"You'll forgive me observing that this remark shows you have not grasped what I'm telling you. These creatures are not planetary creatures at all, though they may alight on a planet here and there; like a bird alighting on a tree. There's some of them, he says, are more or less permanently attached to particular planets, but they're not native there."
"They are, I gather, more or less friendly?"
"That is the Director's idea about them, with one exception."
"The eldils that have for centuries concentrated on our own planet. We seem to have had no luck in our particular complement of parasites. And that, Mrs. Studdock, brings me to the point."
Jane waited. MacPhee's manner almost neutralised the strangeness of what he was telling her.
"The long and the short of it is," said he, " that this house is dominated either by the creatures I'm talking about or by a sheer delusion. It is by advices he thinks he has received from eldils that the Director has discovered the conspiracy against the human race; and it's on instructions from eldils that he's conducting the campaign-if you call it conducting! It may have occurred to you to wonder how any man thinks we're going to defeat a conspiracy by growing winter vegetables and training performing bears. It is a question I have propounded on more than one occasion. The answer is always the same: we're waiting for orders."
"From the eldils ? It was them he meant when he spoke of his Masters?"
"It would be."
"But, Mr. MacPhee, I thought you said the ones on our planet were hostile."
"That's a good question," said MacPhee, " but it's not our own ones that the Director claims to be in communication with. It's his friends from outer space. Our own crew, the terrestrial eldils, are at the back of the whole conspiracy."
"You mean that the other eldils, out of space, come here -to this house?"
"That is what the Director thinks."
"But you must know whether it's true or not."
"Have you seen them?"
"That's not a question to be answered Aye or No. I've seen a good many things in my time that weren't there or weren't what they pretended to be; rainbows and reflections and sunsets, not to mention dreams."
"You have seen something, then?"
"Aye. But we must keep an open mind. It might be an hallucination. It might be a conjuring trick . . ."
"By the Director?" asked Jane angrily. "Do you really expect me to believe that the Director is a charlatan?"
"I wish, ma'am," said MacPhee, " you could consider the matter without constantly using such terms as believe. Obviously, conjuring is one of the hypotheses that any impartial investigator must take into account. The fact that it is a hypothesis specially uncongenial to the emotions of this investigator or that, is neither here nor there."
"There's such a thing as loyalty," said Jane.
MacPhee looked up with a hundred Covenanters in his eyes.
"There is, ma'am," he said. " As you get older you will learn that it is a virtue too important to be lavished on individual personalities."
At that moment there was a knock at the door. "Come in," said MacPhee, and Camilla entered.
"Have you finished with Jane, Mr. MacPhee?" she said. "She promised to come out for a breath of air with me before dinner."
"Och, breath of air your grandmother!" said MacPhee with a gesture of despair. "Very well, ladies, very well. Away out to the garden. I doubt they're doing something more to the purpose on the enemy's side."
"He's been telling you?" said Camilla, as the two girls went together down the passage.
Moved by a kind of impulse which was rare to her experience, Jane seized her friend's hand as she answered "Yes!"Both were filled with some passion, but what passion they did not know. They came to the front door, and as they opened it a sight met their eyes which, though natural, seemed at the moment apocalyptic.
All day the wind had been rising, and they found themselves looking out on a sky swept almost clean. The air was intensely cold; the stars severe and bright. High above the last rags of scurrying cloud hung the Moon in all her wildness-the huntress, the untameable virgin, the spear-head of madness. The wildness crept into Jane's blood.
"That Mr. MacPhee . . ." said Jane, as they walked uphill to the summit of the garden, " how does he explain the Director's age?"
"Yes. That is what people are like who come back from the stars. Or at least from Perelandra. He will never grow a year or a month older again."
"Will he die?"
"He will be taken away, I believe. Back into Deep Heaven. It has happened to one or two people, perhaps about six, since the world began."
"What- what is he?"
"He's a man, my dear. And he is the Pendragon of Logres. This house, all of us here, are all that's left of Logres: all the rest has become merely Britain. Let's go right to the top. How it's blowing. They might come to him to-night."
That evening the Director held council in the Blue Room. "Well," said Ransom, as Grace Ironwood concluded reading from her notes. "That is the dream, and everything in it seems to be objective."
"Objective?" said Dimble. "I don't understand, sir. You don't mean they could really have a thing like that?"
"What do you think, MacPhee?" asked Ransom. "Oh aye, it's possible," said MacPhee. "They do it often in laboratories. You cut off a cat's head, maybe, and throw the body away. You can keep the head going for a bit if you supply it with blood at the right pressure."
"Do you mean, keep it alive?" said Dimble. "Alive is ambiguous. It's what would be popularly called alive. But a human head-and consciousness-I don't know what would happen if you tried that."
"It has been tried," said Miss Ironwood. "A German tried it before the first war. With the head of a criminal. It failed. The head decayed in the ordinary way."
"Then this abomination," said Dr. Dimble, " is real- not only a dream."
"We have no evidence of that," said MacPhee. "I'm only stating the facts. What the girl has dreamed is possible."
"And what about this turban business," said Denniston, " this sort of swelling on top of the head?"
"Supposing the dream to be veridical," said MacPhee. "You can guess what it would be. Once they'd got it kept alive, the first thing that would occur to boys like them would be to increase its brain. They'd try all sorts of stimulants. And then, maybe, they'd ease open the skullcap and just-well, just let it boil over, as you might say."
"Is it at all probable," said the Director, " that a hypertrophy like that would increase thinking power?"
"That seems to me the weak point," said Miss Ironwood. "I should have thought it just as likely to produce lunacy. But it might have the opposite effect."
"Then what we are up against," said Dimble, " is a criminal's brain swollen to superhuman proportions and experiencing a mode of consciousness which we can't imagine, but which is presumably a consciousness of agony and hatred."
"It's not certain," said Miss Ironwood, " that there would be very much actual pain."
"It tells us one thing straightaway," said Denniston. "What's that?" asked MacPhee.
"That the enemy movement is international. To get that head they must have been hand-in-glove with at least one foreign police force."
"It tells us," said the Director, " that if this technique is really successful, the Belbury people have for all practical purposes discovered a way of making themselves immortal. It is the beginning of what is really a new species-the Chosen Heads who never die. They will call it the next step in evolution. And henceforward all the creatures that you and I call human are mere candidates for admission to the new species or else its slaves-perhaps its food."
"Mr. Director," said MacPhee. "You'll excuse me for speaking frankly. Your enemies have provided themselves with this Head. They have taken possession of Edgestow, and they're in a fair way to suspend the laws of England. And still you tell us it is not time to move. If you had taken my advice six months ago we would have had an organisation all over this island by now and maybe a party in the House of Commons. I know well what you'll say that those are not the right methods. And maybe no. But if you can neither take our advice nor give us anything to do, what are we all sitting here for? Have you seriously considered sending us away and getting some other colleagues that you can work with?"
"Dissolve the Company, do you mean?" said Dimble.
"Aye, I do," said MacPhee.
The Director looked up with a smile. "But," he said, "I have no power to dissolve it."
"In that case," said MacPhee, "I must ask what authority you had to bring it together?"
"I never brought it together," said the Director. Then, after glancing round the company, he added: "There is some strange misunderstanding here! Were you all under the impression I had selected you? Were you?" he repeated, when no one answered.
MacPhee's stern features relaxed into a broad grin. "I see what you're driving at," he said. "We've all been playing blind-man's buff, I doubt. But I'll take leave to observe, Dr. Ransom, that you carry things a wee bit high. I don't just remember how you came to be called Director."
"I am the Director," said Ransom, smiling. "Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine ? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyeresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me- as the very animals in this house first came to it. You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household." MacPhee resumed his chair, and the Director continued. "We have learned to-night," he said, " if not what the real power behind our enemies is doing, at least the form in which it is embodied at Belbury. We therefore know something about one of the two attacks which are about to be made on our race. But I'm thinking of the other."
"Meaning by that?" asked MacPhee. "Meaning," said Ransom, " whatever is under Bragdon Wood. And I think that what is under it is that old man in a mantle whom Jane found in a dark hole in her dream."
"You're still thinking about that?" said the Ulster-man. "I am thinking of almost nothing else," said the Director. "It may be the greater danger of the two. But what is certain is that the greatest danger of all is the junction of the enemies' forces. When the new power from Belbury joins up with the old power under Bragdon Wood, Logres-indeed Man-will be almost surrounded. For us everything turns on preventing that junction. That is the point at which we must be ready both to kill and die. But we cannot get into Bragdon and start excavating ourselves. There must be a moment when they find him-it. I have no doubt we shall be told in one way or another. Till then we must wait."
"I don't believe a word of all that other story," said MacPhee.
"I thought," said Miss Ironwood, "we weren't to use words like believe. I thought we were only to state facts and exhibit implications."
"If you two quarrel much more," said the Director, "I think I'll make you marry one another."
At the beginning the grand mystery for the Company had been why the enemy wanted Bragdon Wood. The land was unsuitable and Edgestow itself was not an obviously convenient place. By intense study in collaboration with Dr. Dimble the Director had at last come to a certain conclusion. They knew that Edgestow lay in what had been the very heart of ancient Logres, and that an historical Merlin had once worked in Bragdon Wood.
What exactly he had done there they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it exactly with what the Renaissance called Magic. They thought that Merlin's art was the last survival of something older and different-something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Atlantis and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective.
But if the only possible attraction of Bragdon lay in its association with the last vestiges of Atlantean magic, this told the Company something else. It told them that the N.I.C.E., at its core, was not concerned solely with modern or materialistic forms of power. It told the Director, in fact, that there was Eldilic energy and Eldilic knowledge behind it.
Up to a certain point the Director had supposed that the powers for which the enemy hankered were resident in the mere site at Bragdon-for there is an old belief that locality itself is of importance in such matters. But from Jane's dream of the cold sleeper he had learned better. There was something under the soil of Bragdon, something to be discovered by digging. It was, in fact, the body of Merlin. What the eldils had told him about the possibility of such discovery was no wonder to them. In their eyes the normal Tellurian modes of engendering and birth and death and decay were no less wonderful than the countless other patterns of being which were continually present to their unsleeping minds. That a body should lie uncorrupted for fifteen hundred years did not seem strange to them; they knew worlds where there was no corruption at all. That its life should remain latent in it all that time was to them no more strange: they had seen innumerable different modes in which soul and matter could be combined and separated, separated without loss of reciprocal influence, combined without true incarnation, or brought together in a union as short, and as momentous, as the nuptial embrace. It was not as a marvel in natural philosophy, but as an information in time of war that they brought the Director their tidings. Merlin had not died. His life had been side-tracked, moved out of our one-dimensioned time for fifteen centuries. But under certain conditions it would return to his body.
It was this that kept the Director wakeful in the cold hours when the others had left him. There was no doubt now that the enemy had bought Bragdon to find Merlin: and if they found him they would re-awake him. The old Druid would inevitably cast in his lot with the new planners. A junction would be effected between two kinds of power which between them would determine the fate of our planet. Doubtless that had been the will of the Dark-Eldils for centuries. The sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had even in Ransom's own time begun to be subtly manoeuvred in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists indifference to it, and a concentration upon power had been the result. Babble about the elan vital and flirtations with pan-psychism were bidding fair to restore the Anima Mundi of the magicians. Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God. The very experiences of the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of deep set repugnances was the first essential for progress. And now all this had reached the stage at which its dark contrivers thought they could safely begin to bend it back so that it would meet that other and earlier kind of power. Indeed, they were choosing the first moment at which this could have been done. You could not have done it with nineteenth-century scientists. Their firm objective materialism would have excluded it from their minds; and their inherited morality would have kept them from touching dirt. MacPhee was a survivor from that tradition. It was different now. Perhaps few or none at Belbury knew what was happening: but once it happened, they would be like straw in fire. What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? What should they regard as too obscene, since they held that all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of men? From the point of view which is accepted in hell, the whole history of our Earth had led to this moment. There was now at last a real chance for fallen Man to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate.