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Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, War in Heaven is an eerily disturbing book, one that graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.
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First digital edition 2016 by Anna Ruggieri
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- 1. The Prelude
- 2. The Evening in Three Homes
- 3. The Archdeacon in the City
- 4. The First Attempt on the Graal
- 5. The Chemist’s Shop
- 6. The Sabbath
- 7. Adrian
- 8. Fardles
- 9. The Flight of the Duke of the North Ridings
- 10. The Second Attempt on the Graal
- 11. The Ointment
- 12. The Third Attempt on the Graal
- 13. Conversations of the Youngman in Grey
- 14. The Bible of Mrs. Hippy
- 15. ‘To-Night Thou Shalt Be with Me in Paradise’
- 16. The Search for the House
- 17. The Marriage of the Living and the Dead
- 18. Castra Parvulorum
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
A few moments later there was. Lionel Rackstraw, strolling back from lunch, heard in the corridor the sound of the bell inhis room, and, entering at a run, took up the receiver. He remarked, as he did so, the boots and trousered legs sticking out from the large knee-hole table at which he worked, but the telephone had established the first claim on his attention.
“Yes,” he said, “yes . . . No, not before the 17th . . . No, who cares what he wants? . . . No, who wants to know? . . . Oh, Mr. Persimmons. Oh, tell him the 17th . . . Yes . . . Yes, I’ll send a set down.”
He put the receiver down and looked back at the boots.
It occurred to him that someone was probably doing something to the telephone; people did, he knew, at various times drift in on him for such purposes. But they usually looked round or said something; and this fellow must have heard him talking. He bent down towards the boots.
“Shall you be long?” he said into the space between the legs and the central top drawer; and then, as there was no answer, he walked away, dropped hat and gloves and book on to their shelf, strolled back to his desk, picked up some papersand read them, put them back, and, peering again into the dark hole, said more impatiently, “Shall you be long?”
No voice replied; not even when, touching the extended foot with his own, he repeated the question. Rather reluctantly he went round to the other side of the table, which was still darker, and, trying to make out the head of the intruder, said almost loudly: “Hallo! hallo! What’s the idea?” Then, as nothing happened, he stood up and went on to himself: “Damn it all, is he dead?” and thought at once that he might be.
That dead bodies did not usually lie round in one of the rooms of a publisher’s offices in London about half-past two in the afternoon was a certainty that formed now an enormous and cynical background to the fantastic possibility. Hehalf looked at the door which he had closed behind him, and then attempted the same sort of interior recovery with which he had often thrown off the knowledge that at any moment during his absence his wifemightbe involved in some street accident, some skidding bus orswerving lorry. These things happened — a small and unpleasant, if invisible, deity who lived in a corner of his top shelves had reminded him — these things happened, and evennowperhaps . . . People had been crushed against their own frontdoors; there had been a doctor in Gower Street. Of course, it was all untrue. But this time, as he moved to touch the protruding feet, he wondered if it were.
The foot he touched apparently conveyed no information to the stranger’s mind, and Lionel gave upthe attempt. He went out and crossed the corridor to another office, whose occupant, spread over a table, was marking sentences in newspaper cuttings.
“Mornington,” Lionel said, “there’s a man in my room under the table, and I can’t get him to take any notice. Will you come across? He looks,” he added in a rush of realism, “for all the world as if he was dead.”
“How fortunate!” Mornington said, gathering himself off the table. “If he were alive and had got under your table and wouldn’t take any notice I should be afraid you’d annoyed him somehow. I think that’s rather a pleasant notion,” he went on as they crossed the corridor, “a sort of modernKing’s Threshold— get under the table of the man who’s insulted you and simply sulk there. Not, I think, starve —that’s for more romantic ages than ours — but take a case filled with sandwiches and a thermos . . . What’s the plural of thermos? . . . ” He stared at the feet, and then, going up to the desk, went down on one knee and put a hand over the disappearing leg. Then he looked up at Lionel.
“Something wrong,” he said sharply. “Go and ask Dalling to come here.” He dropped to both knees and peered under the table.
Lionel ran down the corridor in the other direction, and returned in a few minutes with a short manof about forty-five, whose face showed more curiosity than anxiety. Mornington was already making efforts to get the body from under the table.
“He must be dead,” he said abruptly to the others as they came in. “What an incredible business! Go round the other side, Dalling; the buttons have caught in the table or something; see if you can get them loose.”
“Hadn’t we better leave it for the police?” Dalling asked. “I thought you weren’t supposed to move bodies.”
“How the devil do I know whether it is abody?” Mornington asked. “Not but what you may be right.” He made investigations between the trouser-leg and the boot, and then stood up rather suddenly. “It’s a body right enough,” he said. “Is Persimmons in?”
“No,” said Dalling; “he won’t be back till four.”
“Well, we shall have to get busy ourselves, then. Will you get on to the police-station? And, Rackstraw, you’d better drift about in the corridor and stop people coming in, or Plumpton will be earning half a guinea by telling theEvening News.”
Plumpton, however, had no opportunity of learning what was concealed behind the door against which Lionel for the next quarter of an hour or so leant, his eyes fixed on a long letter which he had caught up from his desk as a pretext for silence if anyone passedhim. Dalling went downstairs and out to the front door, a complicated glass arrangement which reflected every part of itself so many times that many arrivals were necessary before visitors could discover which panels swung back to the retail sales-room, which to a waiting-room for authors and others desiring interviews with the remoter staff, and which to a corridor leading direct to the stairs. It was here that he welcomed the police and the doctor, who arrived simultaneously, and going up the stairs to the first floor he explained the situation.
At the top of these stairs was a broad and deep landing, from which another flight ran backwards on the left-hand to the second floor. Opposite the stairs, across the landing, was the private room of Mr. Stephen Persimmons, the head of the business since his father’s retirement some seven years before. On either side the landing narrowed to a corridor which ran for some distance left and right and gave access to various rooms occupied by Rackstraw, Mornington, Dalling, and others. On the right this corridor ended in a door which gave entrance to Plumpton’s room. On the left the other section, in which Lionel’s room was the last on the right hand, led to a staircase to the basement. On its way, however, this staircasepassed and issued on a side door through which the visitor came out into a short, covered court, having a blank wall opposite, which connected the streets at the front and the back of the building. It would therefore have been easy for anyone to obtain access to Lionel’s room in order, as the inspector in charge remarked pleasantly to Mornington, “to be strangled.”
For the dead man had, as was evident when the police got the body clear, been murdered so. Lionel, in obedience to the official request to seeif he could recognize the corpse, took one glance at the purple face and starting eyes, and with a choked negative retreated. Mornington, with a more contemplative, and Dalling with a more curious, interest, both in turn considered and denied any knowledgeof the stranger. He was a little man, in the usual not very fresh clothes of the lower middle class; his bowler hat had been crushed in under the desk; his pockets contained nothing but a cheap watch, a few coppers, and some silver — papers he appeared tohave none. Around his neck was a piece of stout cord, deeply embedded in the flesh.
So much the clerks heard before the police with their proceedings retired into cloud and drove the civilians into other rooms. Almost as soon, either by the telephone or some other means, news of the discovery reached Fleet Street, and reporters came pushing through the crowd that began to gather immediately the police were seen to enter the building. The news of the discovered corpse was communicated to them officially, and for the rest they were left to choose as they would among the rumours flying through the crowd, which varied from vivid accounts of the actual murder and several different descriptions of the murderer to a report that the whole of the staff were under arrest and the police had had to wade ankle-deep through the blood in the basement.
To such a distraction Mr. Persimmons himself returned from a meeting of the Publishers’ Association about four o’clock, and was immediately annexed by Inspector Colquhoun, who had taken the investigation in charge. Stephen Persimmons was rather a small man, with a mild face apt to take on a harassed and anxious appearance on slight cause. With much more reason he looked anxious now, as he sat opposite the inspector in his ownroom. He had recognized the body as little as any of his staff had, and it was about them rather than it that the inspector was anxious to gain particulars.
“This Rackstraw, now,” Colquhoun was saying: “it was his room the body was found in. Has he been with you long?”
“Oh, years,” Mr. Persimmons answered; “most of them have. All the people on this floor — and nearly all the rest. They’ve been here longer than me, most of them. You see, I came in just three years before my father retired — that’s seven years ago, and three’s ten.”
“And Rackstraw was here before that?”
“Oh, yes, certainly.”
“Do you know anything of him?” the inspector pressed. “His address, now?”
“Dalling has all that,” the unhappy Persimmons said. “He has all the particulars about the staff.I remember Rackstraw being married a few years ago.”
“And what does he do here?” Colquhoun went on.
“Oh, he does a good deal of putting books through, paper and type and binding, and so on. He rather looks after the fiction side. I’ve taken up fiction a good deal since my father went; that’s why the business has expanded so. We’ve got two of the best selling people today — Mrs. Clyde and John Bastable.”
“Mrs. Clyde,” the inspector brooded. “Didn’t she write ‘The Comet and the Star’?”
“That’s the woman. Wesold ninety thousand,” Persimmons answered.
“And what are your other lines?”
“Well, my father used to do, in fact he began with, what you might call occult stuff. Mesmerism and astrology and histories of great sorcerers, and that sort of thing. It didn’t really pay very well.”
“And does Mr. Rackstraw look after that too?” asked Colquhoun.
“Well, some of it,” the publisher answered. “But of course, in a place like this things aren’t exactly divided just — just exactly. Mornington, now, Mornington looks aftersome books. Under me, of course,” he added hastily. “And then he does a good deal of the publicity, the advertisements, you know. And he does the reviews.”
“What, writes them?” the inspector asked.
“Certainly not,” said the publisher, shocked. “Reads themand chooses passages to quote. Writes them! Really, inspector!”
“And how long has Mr. Mornington been here?” Colquhoun went on.
“Oh, years and years. I tell you they all came before I did.”
“I understand Mr. Rackstraw was out a long time at lunch today, with one of your authors. Would that be all right?”
“I daresay he was,” Persimmons said, “if he said so.”
“You don’tknowthat he was?” asked Colquhoun. “He didn’t tell you?”
“Really, inspector,” the worried Persimmons said again, “do you think my staff askme for an hour off when they want to see an author? I give them their work and they do it.”
“Sir Giles Tumulty,” the inspector said. “You know him?”
“We’re publishing his last book, ‘Historical Vestiges of Sacred Vessels in Folklore’. The explorer andantiquarian, you know. Rackstraw’s had a lot of trouble with his illustrations, but he told me yesterday he thought he’d got them through. Yes, I can quite believe he went up to see him. But you can find out from Sir Giles, can’t you?”
“What I’m getting at,” the inspector said, “is this. If any of your people are out, is there anything to prevent anyone getting into any of their rooms? There’s a front way and a back way in and nobody on watch anywhere.”
“There’s a girl in the waiting-room,” Persimmons objected.
“A girl!” the inspector answered. “Reading a novel when she’s not talking to anyone. She’d be a lot of good. Besides, there’s a corridor to the staircase alongside the waiting-room. And at the back there’s no-one.”
“Well, one doesn’t expect strangersto drop in casually,” the publisher said unhappily. “I believe they do lock their doors sometimes, if they have to go out and have to leave a lot of papers all spread out.”
“And leave the key in, I suppose?” Colquhoun said sarcastically.
“Of course,” Persimmons answered. “Suppose I wanted something. Besides, it’s not to keep anyone out; it’s only just to save trouble and warn anyone going in to be careful, so to speak; it hardly ever happens. Besides —”
Colquhoun cut him short. “What people mean by asking for a Government of business men, I don’t know,” he said. “I was a Conservative from boyhood, and I’m stauncher every year the more I see of business. There’s nothing to prevent anyone coming in.”
“But they don’t,” said Persimmons.
“But they have,” said Colquhoun. “It’s the unexpected that happens. Are you a religious man, Mr. Persimmons?”
“Well, not — not exactly religious,” the publisher said hesitatingly. “Not what you’d call religious unpleasantly, I mean. But what —”
“Nor am I,” the inspector said. “AndI don’t get the chance to go to church much. But I’ve been twice with my wife to a Sunday evening service at her Wesleyan Church in the last few months, and it’s a remarkable thing, Mr. Persimmons, we had the same piece read from the Bible each time. It ended up —‘And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.’ It seemed to me fairly meant for the public. ‘What I say unto you,’ that’s us in the police, ‘I say unto all, Watch.’ If there was more of that there’d be fewer undiscovered murders. Well, I’ll go and see Mr. Balling. Good day, Mr. Persimmons.”
Adrian Rackstraw opened the oven, put the chicken carefully inside, and shut the door. Then he went back to the table, and realized suddenly that he had forgotten tobuy the potatoes which were to accompany it. With a disturbed exclamation, he picked up the basket that lay in a corner, put on his hat, and set out on the new errand. He considered for a moment as he reached the garden gate to which of the two shops at which Mrs. Rackstraw indifferently supplied her needs he should go, and, deciding on the nearest, ran hastily down the road. At the shop, “Three potatoes,” he said in a low, rather worried voice.
“Yes, sir,” the man answered. “Five shillings, please.”
Adrianpaid him, put the potatoes in the basket, and started back home. But as at the corner he waited for the trams to go by and leave a clear crossing, his eye was caught by the railway station on his left. He looked at it for a minute or two in considerable doubt; then, changing his mind on the importance of vegetables, went back to the shop, left his basket with orders that the potatoes should be sent at once, and hurried back to the station. Once in the train, he saw bridges and tunnels succeed one another in exciting succession as the engine, satisfactorily fastened to coal-truck and carriages, went rushing along the Brighton line. But, before it reached its destination, his mother, entering the room with her usual swiftness, caught the station with her footand sent it flying across the kitchen floor. Her immediate flood of apologies placated Adrian, however, and he left the train stranded some miles outside Brighton in order to assist her in preparing the food for dinner. She sat down on a chair for a moment, and he broke in again hastily.
“Oh, mummie, don’t sit down there, that’s my table,” he said.
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” Barbara Rackstraw answered. “Had you got anything on it?”
“Well, I was going to put the dinner things,” Adrian explained. “I’ll justsee if the chicken’s cooked. Oh, it’s lovely!”
“How nice!” Barbara said abstractedly. “Is it a large chicken?”
“Not a very large one,” Adrian admitted. “There’s enough for me and you and my Bath auntie.”
“Oh,” said Barbara, startled, “is your Bath auntie here?”
“Well, she may be coming,” said Adrian. “Mummie, why do I have a Bath auntie?”
“Because a baby grew up into your Bath auntie, darling,” his mother said. “Unintentional but satisfactory, as far as it goes. Adrian, do you think your father will like cold sausages? Because there doesn’t seem to be anything else much.”
“I don’t want any cold sausages,” Adrian said hurriedly.
“No, my angel, but it’s the twenty-seventh of the month, and there’s never any money then,” Barbara said. “And here he is, anyhow.”
Lionel, in spite of the shock that he had received in the afternoon, found himself, rather to his own surprise, curiously free from the actual ghost of it. His memory had obligingly lost the face of the dead man, and it was not until he came through the streets of Tooting that he began to understand that its effect was at once more natural and more profound than he had expected. His usual sense of the fantastic and dangerous possibilities of life, a sense which dwelled persistently in a remote corner of hismind, never showing itself in full, but stirring in the absurd alarm which shook him if his wife were ever late for an appointment — this sense now escaped from his keeping, and, instead of being too hidden, became too universal to be seized. The faces hesaw, the words he heard existed in an enormous void, in which he himself — reduced to a face and voice, without deeper existence — hung for a moment, grotesque and timid. There had been for an hour some attempt to reestablish the work of the office, and he had initialled, before he left, a few memoranda which were brought to him. The “L. R.” of his signature seemed now to grow balloon-like and huge about him, volleying about his face at the same time that they turned within and around him in a slimy tangle. At similar, if less terrifying, moments, in other days, he had found that a concentration upon his wife had helped to steady and free him, but when this evening he made this attempt he found even in her only a flying figure with a face turned from him, whom he dreaded though he hastened to overtake. As he put his key in the lock he was aware that the thought of Adrian had joined the mad dance of possible deceptions, and it was with a desperate and machine-like courage that he entered to dare whatever horror awaited him.
Nor did the ordinary interchange of greetings do much to disperse the cloud. It occurred to him even as he smiled at Barbara that perhaps another lover had not long left the house; it occurred to him even as he watched Adrian finding pictures of trains in the evening paper that a wild possibility — for a story perhaps; not, surely not, as truth — might be that of a child whose brain was that of the normal man of forty while all his appearance was that of four. An infant prodigy? No, but a prodigy who for some horrible reason of his own concealed his prodigiousness until the moment he expected shouldarrive. And when they left him to his evening meal, while Barbara engaged herself in putting Adrian to bed, a hundred memories of historical or fictitious crimes entered his mind in which the victim had been carefully poisoned under the shelter of a peaceful and happy domesticity. And not that alone or chiefly; it was not the possibility of administered poison that occupied him, but the question whether all food, and all other things also, were not in themselves poisonous. Fruit, he thought, might be; was there not in the nature of things some venom which nourished while it tormented, so that the very air he breathed did but enable him to endure fora longer time the spiritual malevolence of the world?
Possessed by such dreams, he sat listless and alone until Barbara returned and settled herself down to the evening paper. The event of the afternoon occupied, he knew, the front page. He found himselfincapable of speaking of it; he awaited the moment when her indolent eyes should find it. But that would not be, and indeed was not, till she had looked through the whole paper, delaying over remote paragraphs he had never noticed, and extracting interestfrom the mere superfluous folly of mankind. She turned the pages casually, glanced at the heading, glanced at the column, dropped the paper over the arm of her chair, and took up a cigarette.
“He’s beginning to make quite recognizable letters,” she said. “He made quite a good K this afternoon.”
This, Lionel thought despairingly, was an example of the malevolence of the universe; he had given it, and her, every chance. Did she never read the paper? Must he talk of it himself, and himself renew the dreadful memories in open speech?
“Did you see,” he said, “what happened at our place this afternoon?”
“No,” said Barbara, surprised; and then, breaking off, “Darling, you look so ill. Do you feel ill?”
“I’m not quite the thing,” Lionel admitted. “You’ll see why, inthere.” He indicated the discarded Star.
Barbara picked it up. “Where?” she asked. “‘Murder in City publishing house.’ That wasn’t yours, I suppose? Lionel, it was! Good heavens, where?”
“In my office,” Lionel answered, wondering whether some other corpsewasn’t hidden behind the chair in which she sat. Of course, they had found that one this afternoon, but mightn’t there be a body that other people couldn’t find, couldn’t even see? Barbara herself now: mightn’t she be really lying there dead? and this that seemed to sit there opposite him merely a projection of his own memories of a thousandevenings when she had sat so? What mightn’t be true, in this terrifying and obscene universe?
Barbara’s voice — or the voice of the apparent Barbara — broke in. “But,dearest,” she said, “how dreadful for you! Why didn’t you tell me? You must have had a horrible time.” She dropped the paper again and hurled herself on to her knees beside him.
He caught her hand in his own, and felt as if his body at least was sane, whatever his mind might be. After all, the universe had produced Barbara. And Adrian, who, though a nuisance, was at least delimited and real in his own fashion. The fantastic child of his dream, evil and cruel and vigilant, couldn’t at the same time have Adrian’s temper and Adrian’s indefatigable interest in things. Even devils couldn’t be normal children at the same time. He brought his wife’s wrist to his cheek, and the touch subdued the rising hysteria within him. “It was rather a loathsome business,” he said, and put out his other hand for the cigarettes.
Mornington had on various occasions argued with Lionel whether pessimism was always the result of a too romantic, even a too sentimental, view of the world; and a slightly scornful mind pointed out to him, while he ate a solitary meal in his rooms that evening, that the shock which he undoubtedly had felt was the result of not expecting people to murder other people. “Whereas they naturally do,” he said to himself. “The normal thing with an unpleasant intrusion is to try and exclude it — human or not. So silly not to be prepared for these things. Some people, as De Quincey said, have a natural aptitude for being murdered. To kill or to be killed is a perfectly reasonable thing. And I will not let it stopme taking those lists round to the Vicar’s.”
He got up, collected the papers which he had been analysing for reports on parochial finance, and went off to the Vicarage of St. Cyprian’s, which was only a quarter of an hour from his home. He disliked himselffor doing work that he disliked, but he had never been able to refuse help to any of his friends; and the Vicar might be numbered among them. Mornington suspected his Christianity of being the inevitable result of having moved for some time as a youth ofeighteen in circles which were, in a rather detached and superior way, opposed to it; but it was a religion which enabled him to despise himself and everyone else without despising the universe, thus allowing him at once in argument or conversation the advantages of the pessimist and the optimist. It was because the Vicar, a hard-worked practical priest, had been driven by stress ofexperience to some similar standpoint that the two occasionally found one another congenial.
That evening, however, he found avisitor at the Vicarage, a round, dapper little cleric in gaiters, who was smoking a cigar and turning over the pages of a manuscript. The Vicar pulled Mornington into the study where they were sitting.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “come in, come in. We’vebeen talking about you. Let me introduce the Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum — Mr. Mornington. What a dreadful business this is at your office! Did you have anything to do with it?”
Mornington saluted the Archdeacon, who took off his eyeglasses and bowed back. “Dreadful,” he said, tentatively Mornington thought; rather as if he wasn’t quite sure what the other wanted him to say, and was anxious to accommodate himself to what was expected. “Yes, dreadful!”
“Well,” Mornington answered, rebelling against thisdouble sympathy, “of course, it was a vast nuisance. It disturbed the whole place. And I forgot to send the copy for our advertisement in theBookman— so we shan’t get in this month. That’s the really annoying part. I hate being defeated by a murder. And it wasn’t even in my own room.”
“Ah, that’s the trade way of looking at it,” the Vicar said. “You’ll have some coffee? But this poor fellow . . . is it known at all who he was?”
“Nary a know,” Mornington answered brightly. “The police have the body as theclue, and that’s all. Rather large, and inconvenient to lug about, and of course only available for a few days. Nature, you know. But it’s the Bookman that annoys me — you wouldn’t believe how much.”
“Oh, come, not really!” the Vicar protested. “You wouldn’t compare the importance of an advertisement with a murder.”
“I think Mr. Mornington’s quite right,” the Archdeacon said. “After all, one shouldn’t be put out of one’s stride by anything phenomenal and accidental. The just man wouldn’t be.”
“But, still, amurder—” the Vicar protested.
The Archdeacon shrugged. “Murders or mice, the principle’s the same,” he answered. “To-morrow is too late, I suppose?”
“Quite,” Mornington answered. “But I needn’t worry you with my phenomenal and specialist troubles.”
“As amatter of fact,” the Archdeacon went on placidly, “we were talking about your firm at first rather differently.” He pointed with his glasses to the manuscript on the table, and looked coyly at Mornington. “I dare say you can guess,” he added.
Mornington tried to look pleased, and said in a voice that almost cracked with doubt: “Books?”
“A book,” the Vicar said. “The Archdeacon’s been giving a series of addresses on Christianity and the League of Nations, and he’s made them into a little volume which ought to have a good sale. So, of course, I thought of you.”
“Thank you so much,” Mornington answered. “And you’ll excuse me asking — but is the Archdeacon prepared to back his fancy? Will he pay if necessary?”
The Archdeacon shook his head. “I couldn’t do that,Mr. Mornington,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me quite moral, so to speak. You know how they say a book is like a child. One has a ridiculous liking for one’s own child — quite ridiculous. And that’s all right. But seriously to think it’s better than otherchildren, topushit, to ‘back’ its being better, as you said — that seems to me so silly as to be almost wicked.” He shook his head sadly at the manuscript.
“On the general principle I don’t agree with you,” Mornington said. “If your ideas are better than others’ you ought to push them. I’ve no patience with our modern democratic modesty. How do you know the publisher you send it to is a better judge than you are? And, if he rejects it, what do you do?”
“If I send it to all the publishers,” the Archdeaconanswered, “and they all reject it, I think I should believe them.Securus iudicat, you know.”
“But it doesn’t,” Mornington said. “Not by any manner of means. Theorbis terrarumhas to be taught its business by the more intelligent people. It has never yetreceived a new idea into its chaotic mind unless imposed by force, and generally by the sword.”
He picked up the MS. and turned over the pages. “‘The Protocol and the Pact,’” he read aloud, “‘as Stages in Man’s Consciousness.’ ‘Qualities and Nationalities.’ ‘Modes of Knowledge in Christ and Their Correspondences in Mankind.’ ‘Is the League of Nations Representative?’”
“I gather,” he said, looking up, “that this is at once specialist and popular. I don’t for a moment suppose we shall take it, but I should like to have a look at it. May I carry it off now?”
“I think I’d like to keep it over the week-end,” the Archdeacon answered. “There’s a point or two I want to think over and a little Greek I want to check. Perhaps I might bring it down to you on Monday orTuesday?”
“Do,” Mornington said. “Of course, I shan’t decide. It’ll go to one of our political readers, who won’t, I should think from the chapter-headings, even begin to understand it. But bring it along by all means. Persimmons’ list is the most muddled-up thing in London. ‘Foxy Flossie’s Flirtations’ and ‘Notes on Black Magic Considered Philosophically’. But that, of course, is his father, so there’s some excuse.”
“I thought you told me the elder Mr. Persimmons had retired,” the Vicar said.
“He is the Evening Star,” Mornington answered. “He cuts the glory from the grey, as it were. But he pops in a good deal so as to do it. He hovers on the horizon perpetually, and about once a fortnight lightens from the east to the west, or at least to Persimmons’ private office. A nice enough creature — with a perverse inclination towards the occult.”
“I’m afraid,” the Vicar said gloomily, “this interest in what they call the occult is growing. It’s a result of the lack of true religion in these days and a wrong curiosity.”
“Oh, wrong, do you think?” Mornington asked. “Would you say any kind of curiosity was wrong? What about Job?”
“Job?” the Archdeacon asked.
“Well, sir, I always understood that where Job scored over the three friends was in feeling a natural curiositywhy all those unfortunate things happened to him. They simply put up with it, but he, so to speak, asked God what He thought He was doing.”
The Vicar shook his head. “He was told he couldn’t understand.”
“He was taunted with not being able to understand —which isn’t quite the same thing,” Mornington answered. “As a mere argument there’s something lacking perhaps, in saying to a man who’s lost his money and his house and his family and is sitting on the dustbin, all over boils, ‘Look at the hippopotamus.’”
“Job seemed to be impressed,” the Archdeacon said mildly.
“Yes,” Mornington admitted. “He was certainly a perfect fool, in one meaning or other of the words.” He got up to go, and added: “Then I shall see you in the City before you go back to . . . CastraParvulorum, was it? What a jolly name!”
“Unfortunately it isn’t generally called that,” the Archdeacon said. “It’s called in directories and so on, and by the inhabitants, Fardles. By Grimm’s Law.”
“Grimm’s Law?” Mornington asked, astonished. “Wasn’t he the man who wrote the fairy tales for theparvuli? But why did he make a law about it? And why did anyone take any notice?”
“I understand it was something to do with Indo–European sounds,” the Archdeacon answered. “The Castra was dropped, and inparvulorumthe p became f and the v became d. And Grimm discovered what had happened. But I try and keep the old name as well as I can. It’s not far from London. They say Caesar gave it the name because his soldiers caught a lot of British children there, and he sent them back to their own people.”
“Then I don’t see why Grimm should have interfered,” Mornington said, shaking hands. “Fardles . . . it sounds like an essay by Maurice Hewlett. Castra Parvulorum . . . it sounds like . . . it sounds like Rome. Well, good night, sir. Good night, Vicar. No, don’t come to the door.”
Actually at the moment when Mornington was speaking of him the elder Mr. Persimmons was sitting in a comfortable chair in an Ealing flat,listening to his son’s account of the afternoon’s adventure. He was a large man, and he lay back watching Stephen with amused eyes, as the younger man grew more and more agitated over the incredible facts.
“I’m so afraid it’ll be bad for business,” he ended abruptly.
The other sighed a little and looked at the fire. “Business,” he said. “Oh, I shouldn’t worry about business. If they want your books, they’ll buy your books.” He paused a little, and added: “I called in to see you today, but you were out.”
“Did you?” his son said. “They didn’t tell me.”
“Just as well,” Mr. Persimmons answered, “because you needn’t know now. You won’t be called at the inquest. Only, if anybody ever asks you, say you’ll ask me and find out. I tell you because I want to know what you are doing and saying.”
Stephen was looking out of the window, and a minute went by before he spoke. Then he said absently, “What did you want? Anything important?”
“I wanted to talk about the balance sheet,” his father answered. “There are a few points I don’t quite understand. And I still incline to think the proportion of novels is too high. It fritters money away, merely using it to produce more novels of the same kind. I want a definite proportion established between that and the other kind of book.You could quite well have produced myIntensive Masteryinstead of that appalling balderdash about Flossie. Stephen, are you listening?”
“Yes,” Stephen said half-angrily.
“I don’t believe you mean to produce my book,” his father went on equably. “Did you read it?”
“Yes,” Stephen said again, and came back into the room. “I don’t know about it. I told you I didn’t quite like it — I don’t think other people would. Of course, I know there’s a great demand for that sort of psycho-analytic book, but I didn’tfeel at all sure —” He stopped doubtfully.
“If you ever felt quite sure, Stephen,” the older man said, “I should lose a great deal of pleasure. What was it you didn’t feel quite sure about this time?”
“Well, all the examples — and the stories,” Stephen answered vaguely. “They’re all right, I suppose, but they seemed so — funny.”
“‘Funny Stories I Have Read’, by Stephen Persimmons,” his father gibed. “They weren’t stories, Stephen. They were scientific examples.”
“But they were all about torture,” the otheranswered. “There was a dreadful one about — oh, horrible! I don’t believe it would sell.”
“It will sell right enough,” his father said. “You’re not a scientist, Stephen.”
“And the diagrams and all that,” his son went on. “It’d cost a great deal to produce.”
“Well, you shall do as you like,” Persimmons answered. “But, if you don’t produce it by Christmas, I’ll print it privately. That will cost a lot more money, Stephen. And anything else I write. If there are many more it’ll make a nasty hole in my accounts. And there won’t be any sale then, because I shall give them away. And burn what are over. Make up your mind over the week-end. I’ll come down next week to hear what you decide. All a gamble, Stephen, and you don’t like to bet except on a certainty, do you? You know, if I could afford it, I should enjoy ruining you, Stephen. But that, Stephen —”
“For God’s sake, don’t keep on calling me Stephen like that,” the wretched publisher said. “I believe you like worrying me.”
“But that,” his father went on placidly, “wasn’t the only reason I came to see you today. I wanted to kill a man, and your place seemed to me as good as any and better than most. So it was, it seems.”
Stephen Persimmons stared at the large, heavy body opposite lying back in its chair, and said, “You’re worrying me . . . aren’t you?”
“I may be,” the other said, “but facts, I’ve noticed, do worry you, Stephen. They worried your mother into that lunatic asylum. A dreadful tragedy, Stephen — to be cut off from one’s wife like that. I hope nothing of the sort will ever happen to you. Here am I comparatively young — and I should like another child, Stephen. Yes, Stephen, I should like another child. There’d be someone else to leave the money to; someone else with an interest in the business. And I should know better what to do. Now, when you were born, Stephen —”
“Oh, God Almighty,” his son cried, “don’t talk to me like that. What do you mean — you wanted to kill a man?”
“Mean?” the father asked. “Why, that. I hadn’t thought of it till the day before,really — yesterday, so it was; when Sir Giles Tumulty told me Rackstraw was coming to see him — and then it only just crossed my mind. But when we got there, it was all so clear and empty. A risk, of course, but not much. Ask him to wait there while I getthe money, and shut the door without going out. Done in a minute, Stephen, I assure you. He was an undersized creature, too.”
Stephen found himself unable to ask any more questions. Did his father mean it or not? It would be like the old man to torment him? but if he had? Would it be a way of release?
“Well, first, Stephen,” the voice struck in, “you can’t and won’t be sure. And it wouldn’t look well to denounce your father on chance. Your motherisin a lunatic asylum, you know. And, secondly, my last will— I made it a week or two ago — leaves all my money to found a settlement in East London. Very awkward for you, Stephen, if it all had to be withdrawn. But you won’t, you won’t. If anyone asks you, say you weren’t told, but you know I wanted to talk to you about the balance sheet. I’ll come in next week to do it.”
Stephen got to his feet. “I think you want to drive me mad too,” he said. “O God, if I only knew!”
“You know me,” his father said. “Do you think I should worry about strangling you, Stephen, if Iwanted to? As, of course, I might. But it’s getting late. You know, Stephen, you brood too much; I’ve always said so. You keep your troubles to yourself and brood over them. Why not have a good frank talk with one of your clerks — that fellow Rackstraw, say? But you always were a secretive fellow. Perhaps it’s as well, perhaps it’s as well. And you haven’t got a wife. Now, can you hang me or can’t you?” The door shut behind his son, but he went on still aloud. “The wizards were burned, they went to beburned, they hurried. Is there a need still? Must the wizard be an outcast like the saint? Or am I only tired? I want another child. And I want the Graal.”
He lay back in his chair, contemplating remote possibilities and the passage of the days immediately before him.
The inquest was held on the Monday, with the formal result of a verdict of “Murder by a person or persons unknown,” and the psychological result of emphasizing the states of mind of the three chief sufferers within themselves. The world certified itself as being, to Lionel more fantastic, to Mornington more despicable, to Stephen Persimmons more harassing. To the young girl who lived in the waiting-room and was interrogated by the coroner, it became, on the contrary, more exciting and delightful than ever; although she had no information to give — having, on her own account, been engaged all the while so closely indexing letter-books that she had not observed anyone enter or depart by the passage at the side of her office.
On the Tuesday, however, being, perhaps naturally, more watchful, she remarked towards the end of the day, three, or rather four, visitors. The offices shut at six, and about half-past four the elder Mr. Persimmons, giving her an amiablesmile, passed heavily along the corridor and up to his son’s room. At about a quarter past five Barbara Rackstraw, with Adrian, shone in the entrance — as she did normally some three or four times a year — and also disappeared up the stairs. And somewherebetween the two a polite, chubby, and gaitered clergyman hovered at the door of the waiting-room and asked her tentatively if Mr. Mornington were in. Him she committed to the care of a passing office-boy, and returned to her indexing.
Gregory Persimmons, alittle to his son’s surprise and greatly to his relief, appeared to have shaken off the mood of tantalizing amusement which had possessed him on the previous Friday. He discussed various financial points in the balance sheet as if he were concerned only with ordinary business concerns. He congratulated his son on the result of the inquest as likely to close the whole matter except in what he thought the unlikely result of the police discovering the murderer; and when he brought up the subject ofIntensiveMasteryhe did it with no suggestion that anything but the most normal hesitation had ever held Stephen back from enthusiastic acceptance. In the sudden relief from mental neuralgia thus granted him, Stephen found himself promising to have the book out before Christmas — it was then early summer — and even going so far as to promise estimates during the next week and discuss the price at which it might reasonably appear. Towards the end of an hour’s conversation Gregory said, “By the way, I saw Tumulty yesterday, and he asked me to make sure that he was in time to cut aparagraph out of his book. He sent Rackstraw a postcard, but perhaps I might just make sure it got here all right. May I go along, Stephen?”
“Do,” Stephen said. “I’ll sign these letters and be ready by the time you’re back.” And, as his father went out with a nod, he thought to himself: “He couldn’t possibly want to go into that office again if he’d really killed a man there. It’s just his way of pulling my leg. Rather hellish, but I suppose it doesn’t seem so to him.”
Lionel, tormented with a more profound and widely spread neuralgia than his employer’s, had by pressure of work been prevented from dwelling on it that day. Soon after his arrival Mornington had broken into the office to ask if he could have a set of proofs of Sir Giles Tumulty’s book onVessels of Folklore.
“I’ve got an Archdeacon coming to see me,” he said —“don’t bow — and an Archdeacon ought to be interested in folklore, don’t you think? I always used to feel that Archdeaconswere a kind of surviving folklore themselves-they seem preChristian and almost prehistoric: a lingering and bi-sexual tradition. Besides, publicity, you know. Don’t Archdeacons charge? ‘Charge, Archdeacons, charge! On, Castra Parvulorum, on! were the lastwords of Mornington.”
“I wish they were!” Lionel said. “There are the proofs, on that shelf: take them and go! take them all.”
“I don’t want them all. Business, business. We can’t have murders and Bank Holidays every day.”
He routed out the proofs and departed; and when by the afternoon post an almost indecipherable postcard from Sir Giles asked for the removal of a short paragraph on page 218, Lionel did not think of making the alteration on the borrowed set. He marked the paragraph for deletion on the proofs he was about to return for Press, cursing Sir Giles a little for the correction — which, however, as it came at the end of a whole division of the book, would cause no serious inconvenience — and much more for his handwriting. A sentence beginning — heat last made out — “It has been suggested to me” immediately became totally illegible, and only recovered meaning towards the end, where the figures 218 rode like a monumental Pharaoh over the diminutive abbreviations which surrounded it. But the instruction was comprehensible, if the reason for it was not, and Lionel dispatched the proofs to the printer.
When, later on, the Archdeacon arrived, Mornington greeted him with real and false warmth mingled. He liked the clergyman, but he disliked manuscripts, and a manuscript on the League of Nations promised him some hours’ boredom. For, in spite of his disclaimer, he knew he would have to skim the book at least, before he obtainedfurther opinions, and the League of Nations lay almost in the nadir of all the despicable things in the world. It seemed to him so entire and immense a contradiction of aristocracy that it drove him into a positive hunger for mental authority imposed by force. He desired to see Plato and his like ruling with power, and remembered withlonging the fierce inquisition of theLaws. However, he welcomed the Archdeacon without showing this, and settled down to chat about the book.
“Good evening, Mr. Archdeacon,” he said rapidly, suddenly remembering that he didn’t know the other’s name, andat the same moment that it would no doubt be on the manuscript and that he would look at it immediately. “Good of you to come. Come in and sit down.”
The Archdeacon, with an agreeable smile, complied, and, as he laid the parcel on the desk, said: “I feel alittle remorseful now, Mr. Mornington. Or I should if I didn’t realize that this is your business.”
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