DINNER WITH THE SUB-WARDEN
"THIS is a blow!" said Curry.
"Something from N.O.?" said Busby. He and Lord Feverstone and Mark were all drinking sherry before dining with Curry. N.O., which stood for Non Olet, was the nickname of Charles Place, the Warden of Bracton.
"Yes, blast him," said Curry. "Wishes to see me on a most important matter after dinner."
"That means," said the Bursar, "that Jewel and Co. have been getting at him and want to find some way of going back on the whole business."
"Jewel! Good God!" said Busby, burying his left hand in his beard.
"I was rather sorry for old Jewel," said Mark.
"Sorry for Jewel?" said Curry, wheeling round. "You wouldn't say that if you knew what he was like in his prime."
"I agree with you," said Feverstone to Mark, " but then I take the Clausewitz view. Total war is the most humane in the long run. I shut him up instantaneously. He'll be enjoying himself, because I've confirmed everything he's been saying about the younger generation for forty years. What was the alternative ? To let him drivel on until he'd worked himself into a coughing fit or a heart attack, and give him in addition the disappointment of finding that he was treated civilly."
"That's a point of view, certainly," said Mark.
"Damn it all," continued Feverstone, " no man likes to have his stock-in-trade taken away. What would poor Curry do if the Die-hards one day all refused to do any die-harding?"
"Dinner is served, sir," said Curry's "Shooter "-for that is what they call a college servant at Bracton.
"That's all rot, Dick," said Curry as they sat down. "There's nothing I should like better than to see the end of all these Die-hards and be able to get on with the job. You don't suppose I like having to spend all my time merely getting the road clear?" Mark noticed that his host was a little nettled at Lord Feverstone's banter. The latter had an extremely virile and infectious laugh. Mark was beginning to like him.
"The job being . . .?" said Feverstone. "Well, some of us have got work of our own to do," replied Curry.
"I never knew you were that sort of person," said Feverstone.
"That's the worst of the whole system," said Curry. "In a place like this you've either got to be content to see everything go to pieces or else to sacrifice your own career as a scholar to all these infernal college politics. One of these days I shall chuck that side of it and get down to my book."
"I see," said Feverstone. "In order to keep the place going as a learned society, all the best brains in it have to give up doing anything about learning."
"Exactly!" said Curry. "That's just-- " and then stopped, uncertain whether he was being taken quite seriously.
"All that's very well in theory," said Busby, "but I think Curry's quite right. Supposing he resigned his office as sub-warden and retired into his cave. He might give us a thundering good book on economics-- "
"Economics?" said Feverstone, lifting his eyebrows. "I happen to be a military historian, James," said Curry. He was often annoyed at the difficulty which his colleagues seemed to find in remembering what particular branch of learning he had been elected to pursue.
"Military history, of course," said Busby. "As I say, he might give us a thundering good book on military history. But it would be superseded in twenty years. Whereas the work he is actually doing for the College will benefit it for centuries. This whole business, now, of bringing the N.I.C.E. to Edgestow. Think of the new life, The stirring of dormant impulses. What would any book on economics--?"
"Military history," said Feverstone gently, but Busby did not hear.
"What would any book on economics be, compared with a thing like that?" he continued. "I look upon it as the greatest triumph of practical idealism that this century has yet seen."
The good wine was beginning to do its good office. We have all known the kind of clergyman who tends to forget his clerical collar after the third glass: but Busby's habit was the reverse. As wine loosened his tongue, the parson, still latent within him after thirty years' apostasy, began to wake into a strange galvanic life.
"I make no claim to orthodoxy," he said. "But if religion is understood in the deepest sense, I say that Curry, by bringing the N.I.C.E. to Edgestow, has done more for it in one year than Jewel has done in his whole life."
"Has anyone discovered," asked Feverstone,. "what, precisely, the N.I.C.E. is, or what it intends to do?"
"That comes oddly from you, Dick," said Curry. "I thought you were in on it yourself."
"Isn't it a little naive," said Feverstone, "to suppose that being in on a thing involves any distinct knowledge of its official programme?"
"Oh well, if you mean details," said Curry, and then stopped.
"Surely, Feverstone," said Busby, "you're making a great mystery about nothing. I should have thought the objects of the N.I.C.E. were pretty clear. It's the first attempt to take applied science seriously from the national point of view. Think how it is going to mobilise all the talent of the country: and not only scientific talent in the narrower sense. Fifteen departmental directors at fifteen thousand a year each! Its own legal staff! Its own police, I'm told!"
"I agree with James," said Curry. "The N.I.C.E. marks the beginning of a new era-the really scientific era. There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day, and they've got a wonderful gadget by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half-hour. Then that report slides itself into the right position where it's connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports. It's a marvellous gadget. The different kinds of business come out in different coloured lights. They call it a Pragmatometer."
"And there," said Busby, "you see again what the Institute is already doing for the country. Pragmatometry is going to be a big thing. Hundreds of people are going in for it."
"And what do you think about it, Studdock?" said Feverstone.
"I think," said Mark, "that James touched the important point when he said that it would have its own legal staff and its own police. I don't give a fig for Pragmatometers. The real thing is that this time we're going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past."
"Damn," said Curry, looking at his watch. "I'll have to go and talk to N.O. now. If you people would like any brandy when you've finished your wine, it's in that cupboard. You're not going, James, are you?"
"Yes," said the Bursar. "I'm going to bed early. Don't let me break up the party for you two. I've been on my legs nearly all day, you know. A man's a fool to hold any office in this College. Continual anxiety. Crushing responsibility."
As soon as the two men had got out of the room Lord Feverstone looked steadily at Mark for some seconds. Then he chuckled. Then he threw his lean, muscular body well back into his chair and laughed louder and louder. He was very infectious in his laughter, and Mark found himself laughing too. "Pragmatometers-practical idealism," gasped Feverstone. It was a moment of extraordinary liberation for Mark. All sorts of things about Curry and Busby which he had not previously noticed came to his mind. He wondered how he could have been so blind to the funny side of them.
"It really is rather devastating," said Feverstone when he had partially recovered, "that the people one has to use for getting things done should talk such drivel about the things themselves."
"And yet they are, in a sense, the brains of Bracton," said Mark.
"Good Lord, no! Glossop and Bill the Blizzard and even old Jewel have ten times their intelligence."
"I didn't know you took that view."
"I think Glossop etc. are quite mistaken. I think their idea of culture and knowledge and what not is unrealistic. But it is quite a clear idea and they follow it out consistently. They know what they want. But our two poor friends haven't a ghost of a notion where they're going. They'll sweat blood to bring the N.I.C.E. to Edgestow: that's why they're indispensable. But what the point of the N.I.C.E. is, what the point of anything is - ask them another. Pragmatometry! Fifteen sub-directors!"
"Well, perhaps I'm in the same boat myself."
"Not at all. You saw the point at once."
Mark was silent. The giddy sensation of being suddenly whirled up from one plane of secrecy to another prevented him from speaking.
"I want you to come into the Institute," said Feverstone.
"You mean-to leave Bracton?"
"That makes no odds. Anyway, I don't suppose there's anything you want here. We'd make Curry warden when N.O. retires and---"
"They were talking of making you warden."
"God!" said Feverstone, and stared.
Mark realised that from Feverstone's point of view this was like the suggestion that he should become Headmaster of a small idiots' school.
"You," said Feverstone, "would be absolutely wasted as warden. That's the job for Curry. You want a man who loves business and wire-pulling for their own sake and doesn't really ask what it's all about. We've only got to tell him that he thinks so-and-so is a man the College wants, and then he'll never rest till so-and-so gets a Fellowship. That's what we want the College for: a drag net, a recruiting office."
"A recruiting office for the N.I.C.E., you mean?"
"Yes, in the first instance. But it's only one part of the general show."
"I'm not sure that I know what you mean."
"You soon will. It sounds rather in Busby's style to say that humanity is at the cross-roads. But it is the main question at the moment: which side one's on-obscurantism or order. If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and recondition it: make man a really efficient animal. If it doesn't-well, we're done."
"There are three main problems. First, the interplanetary problem."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"We can't do anything about that at present. The only man who could help was Weston."
"He was killed in a blitz, wasn't he?"
"He was murdered, and I've a shrewd idea who the murderer was."
"Good God! Can nothing be done?"
"There's no evidence. The murderer is a respectable Cambridge don with a game leg and a fair beard. He's dined in this College."
"What was Weston murdered for?"
"For being on our side. The murderer is one of the enemy."
"You don't mean to say he murdered him for that?"
"Yes," said Feverstone, bringing his hand down smartly on the table. "That's just the point. People like Curry or James think the violent resistance of the other side ended with the persecution of Galileo and all that. But don't believe it. It is just beginning. They know now that we have at last got real powers. They're going to fight every inch. They'll stop at nothing."
"They can't win," said Mark.
"We'll hope not," said Lord Feverstone. "That is why it is of such immense importance to each of us to choose the right side."
"Oh, I haven't any doubt which is my side," said Mark. "Hang it all-the preservation of the human race-it's a pretty rock-bottom obligation."
"Well, personally," said Feverstone, "I'm not indulging in any Busbyisms about that. The practical point is that you and I don't like being pawns, and we do rather like fighting-specially on the winning side."
"And what is the first practical step?"
"Yes, that's the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don't mean only insects and bacteria. There's far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven't really cleared the place yet. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is man himself."
"Go on. This interests me very much."
"Man has got to take charge of man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest."
"What sort of thing have you in mind?"
"Quite simple and obvious things, at first-sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it'll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we'll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain. A new type of man: and it's people like you who've got to begin to make him."
"That's my trouble. Don't think it's false modesty: but I haven't yet seen how I can contribute."
"No, but we have. You are what we need; a trained sociologist with a radically realistic outlook, not afraid of responsibility. Also, a sociologist who can write."
"You don't mean you want me to write up all this?"
"No. We want you to write it down-to camouflage it. Only for the present, of course. Once the thing gets going we shan't have to bother about the great heart of the British public. But in the meantime it does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you'd have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity: call it re-education of the maladjusted and you have them all slobbering with delight. Odd thing it is-the word ' experiment ' is unpopular, but not the word ' experimental'. You mustn't experiment on children: but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it's all correct!"
"You don't mean that this-er-journalistic side would be my main job?"
"It's nothing to do with journalism. Your readers in the first instance would be committees of the House of Commons, not the public. But that would only be a sideline. As for the job itself-why, it's impossible to say how it might develop. Talking to a man like you, I don't stress the financial side."
"I wasn't thinking about that," said Mark, flushing with pure excitement.
"Look here," said Feverstone. "Let me run you across to-morrow to see John Wither. You'll meet all the important people there, and it'll give you a chance to make up your mind."
"How does Wither come into it? I thought Jules was the head of the N.I.C.E." Jules was a distinguished novelist and scientific populariser whose name always appeared before the public in connection with the new Institute.
"Jules! Hell's bells!" said Feverstone. "He's all right for selling the Institute to the great British public in the Sunday papers and he draws a whacking salary. He's no use for work."
"Oh quite," said Mark. "I was always rather puzzled at his being in the show. Do you know, since you're so kind, I think I'd better accept your offer and go over to Wither for the week-end. What time would you be starting?"
"About quarter to eleven. They tell me you live out Sandown way. I could call and pick you up."
"Thanks very much. Now tell me about Wither."
"John Wither," began Feverstone, but suddenly broke off. "Damn!" he said. "Here comes Curry."
Mark walked home. Something happened to him the moment he had let himself into the flat which was very unusual. He found himself, on the door-mat, embracing a frightened, half-sobbing Jane-even a humble Jane, who was saying, "Oh, Mark, I've been so frightened."
There was a quality in the very muscles of his wife's body which took him by surprise. A certain indefinable defensiveness had momentarily deserted her. He had known such occasions before, but they were rare. And they tended, in his experience, to be followed next day by inexplicable quarrels.
But the reasons for her unusual behaviour on this particular evening were simple enough. She had got back from the Dimbles at about four, and had had to light up and draw the curtains before she had finished tea. The thought had come into her mind that her fright at the dream, at the mention of a mantle, an old man, an old man buried but not dead, and a language like Spanish, had been as irrational as a child's fear of the dark. This had led her to remember moments when she had feared the dark. She allowed herself to remember them too long. The evening somehow deteriorated. She was restless. From being restless she became nervous. Then came a curious reluctance to go into the kitchen to get herself some supper. And now there was no disguising the fact that she was frightened. In desperation she rang up the Dimbles. "I think I might go and see the person you suggested, after all," she said. Mrs. Dimble's voice came back, after a curious little pause, giving her the address. Ironwood was the name, Miss Ironwood, who lived out at St. Anne's on the Hill. Jane asked if she should make an appointment.
"No," said Mrs. Dimble, "they'll be-you needn't make an appointment." Jane kept the conversation going as long as she could. Secretly she had had a wild hope that Mother Dimble would recognise her distress and say at once, "I'll come straight up to you by car. "Instead, she got the mere information and a hurried "Good night."It seemed to Jane that by ringing up she had interrupted a conversation about herself: or about something else more important, with which she was somehow connected. And what had Mrs. Dimble meant by "They'll be--"
"They'll be expecting you"?
"Damn the Dimbles!" said Jane to herself. And now that the life-line had been used and brought no comfort, the terror, as if insulted by her futile attempt to escape it, rushed back on her and she could never afterwards remember whether the horrible old man and the mantle had actually appeared to her in a dream or whether she had merely sat there hoping that they would not.
And that is why Mark found such an unexpected Jane on the door-mat. It was a pity, he thought, that this should have happened on a night when he was so late and so tired and, to tell the truth, not perfectly sober.
"Do you feel quite all right this morning?" said Mark.
"Yes, thank you," said Jane shortly.
Mark was lying in bed and drinking a cup of tea. Jane was seated at the dressing-table, partially dressed, and doing her hair.
Jane thought she was annoyed because her hair was not going up to her liking and because Mark was fussing. She also knew, of course, that she was angry with herself for the collapse which had betrayed her last night into being what she detested-the "little woman" of sentimental fiction running for comfort to male arms. But she thought this anger was only in the back of her mind, and had no suspicion that it was pulsing through every vein and producing the clumsiness in her fingers which made her hair seem intractable.
"Because," continued Mark, " if you felt the least bit uncomfortable, I could put off going to see this man Wither." Jane said nothing.
"Supposing I did," said Mark, " you wouldn't think of asking Myrtle over to stay?"
"No thank you," said Jane emphatically; and then, "I'm quite accustomed to being alone."
"I know," said Mark in a defensive voice. "That's the devil of the way things are in College at present. That's one of the chief reasons I'm thinking of another job." Jane was still silent.
"Look here, old thing," said Mark. "There's no good beating about the bush. I don't like going away while you're in your present state-- "
"What state?" said Jane.
"Well-I mean-just a bit nervy-as anyone may be temporarily."
"Because I happened to be having a nightmare when you came home last night-or rather this morning-there's no need to talk as if I was a neurasthenic." This was not in the least what Jane had intended or expected to say.
"Now there's no good going on like that . . ." began Mark.
"Like what?" said Jane loudly, and then, before he had time to reply, "If you've decided that I'm going mad you'd better get Brizeacre to come down and certify me. It would be convenient to do it while you're away. I'm going to see about the breakfast now. If you don't dress pretty quickly, you'll not be ready when Lord Feverstone calls."
Mark gave himself a bad cut while shaving (and saw, at once, a picture of himself talking to the all-important Wither with a great blob of cotton-wool on his lip), while Jane decided, from a mixture of motives, to cook Mark an unusually elaborate breakfast, and upset it all over the new stove at the last moment. They were still at the table and both pretending to read newspapers when Lord Feverstone arrived. Unfortunately Mrs. Maggs arrived at the same moment. Mrs. Maggs was that element in Jane's economy represented by the phrase "I have a woman who comes in twice a week." They were about the same age and to a bachelor's eye there was no very noticeable difference in their clothes. It was therefore perhaps excusable that when Mark attempted to introduce Feverstone to his wife Feverstone should have shaken Mrs. Maggs by the hand: it did not sweeten the last few minutes before the two men departed.
Jane left the flat under pretence of shopping almost at once. "I really couldn't stand Mrs. Maggs to-day," she said to herself. "She's a terrible talker." So that was Lord Feverstone-that man with the loud, unnatural laugh and the mouth like a shark. Apparently a fool, too ! Jane had distrusted his face. Probably he was making a fool of Mark. Mark was so easily taken in. If only he wasn't at Bracton ! It was a horrible college. And meanwhile, what of the day that awaited her, and the night, and the next night?
She must do something. She even thought of following Mark's advice and getting Myrtle to come and stay. But Myrtle was Mark's twin sister, with much too much of the adoring sister's attitude to the brilliant brother. Then she thought of going to see Dr. Brizeacre as a patient. But when she came to think of answering the sort of questions which Brizeacre would ask, this turned out to be impossible. In the end, somewhat to her own surprise, she found that she had decided to go out to St. Anne's and see Miss Ironwood. She thought herself a fool for doing so.
Mark Studdock was being driven to the Blood Transfusion Office at Belbury, where the nucleus of the N.I.C.E. had taken up its temporary abode. The very size and style of Feverstone's car had made a favourable impression on him the moment he saw it. And what fine, male energy (Mark felt sick of women at the moment) revealed itself in the very gestures with which Feverstone settled himself at the wheel and clasped his pipe firmly between his teeth! The speed of the car, even in the narrow streets of Edgestow, was impressive, and so were the laconic criticisms of Feverstone on other drivers and pedestrians. Once over the level crossing and beyond Jane's old college (St. Elizabeth's), he began to show what his car could do. Telegraph posts raced by, bridges rushed overhead with a roar, villages streamed backward to join the country already devoured, and Mark, at once fascinated and repelled by the insolence of Feverstone's driving, sat saying "Yes" and Quite" and "It was their fault", and stealing sidelong glances at his companion. The long, straight nose and the clenched teeth, the hard, bony outlines beneath the face, the very clothes, all spoke of a big man driving a big car to somewhere where they would find big stuff going on. And he, Mark, was to be in it all.
Jane Studdock meanwhile was progressing slowly towards the village of St. Anne's. The train, which started at half-past one, jerked and rattled along an embankment whence she looked down through bare branches and branches freckled with yellow leaves into Bragdon Wood itself and thence along the edge of Brawl Park and so to the first stop at Duke's Eaton. Here, as at Woolham and Cure Hardy and Fourstones, the train settled back, when it stopped, with a little jerk and something like a sigh. And then there would be a noise of milk cans rolling and coarse boots treading on the platform and after that a pause while the autumn sunlight grew warm on the window-pane and smells of wood and field from beyond the tiny station floated in. At quarter-past two she came to St. Anne's, which was the terminus of the branch, and the end of everything. The air struck her as cold and tonic when she left the station.
There was still a climb to be done on foot, for St. Anne's is perched on a hilltop. A winding road between high banks lead her up to it. As soon as she had passed the church she turned left, as she had been instructed, at the Saxon Cross. Presently she came to a high wall on her right that seemed to run on for a great way. There was a door in it and beside the door an old iron bell-pull. She felt sure she had come on a fool's errand: nevertheless she rang. When the jangling noise had ceased there followed a silence so long, and so chilly, that Jane began to wonder whether the house were inhabited. Then, just as she was debating whether to ring again or to turn away, she heard the noise of someone's feet approaching on the inside of the wall.
Meanwhile Lord Feverstone's car had long since arrived at Belbury-a florid Edwardian mansion which seemed to have sprouted into a widespread outgrowth of newer and lower buildings in cement, which housed the Blood Transfusion Office.