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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 2)     
    That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3) by C.S.Lewis
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    There is good evidence that the well with the British-Roman pavement was already "Merlin's Well " in the fourteenth century, though the name is not found till Queen Elizabeth's reign.

    The most controversial business before the College meeting was the question of selling Bragdon Wood. The purchaser was the N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments. They wanted a site for the building which would worthily house this remarkable organisation. The N.I.C.E. was the first-fruit of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints-" red tape " was the word its supporters used-which have hitherto hampered research in this country. It was also largely free from the restraints of economy. Persistent pressure and endless diplomacy on the part of the Senate of Edgestow had lured the new Institute away from Oxford, from Cambridge, from London. It had thought of all these in turn as possible scenes for its labours. At times the Progressive Element in Edgestow had almost despaired. But success was now practically certain. If the N.I.C.E. could get the necessary land, it would come to Edgestow.

    Three years ago, if Mark had come to a College meeting at which such a question was to be decided, he would have expected to hear the claims of sentiment against progress and beauty against utility openly debated. He knew now that that was not the way things are done. The Progressive Element managed its business really very well. Most of the Fellows did not know that there was any question of selling the Wood. They saw, of course, from their agenda paper that Item 15 was "Sale of College Land", but as that appeared at every College meeting, they were not very interested. They also saw that Item 1 was "Questions about Bragdon Wood". These were not concerned with the proposed sale. Curry, as sub-warden, had some letters to read. The first was from a society concerned for the preservation of ancient monuments. I think myself that this society had been ill-advised to make two complaints. It would have been wiser if they had confined themselves to drawing the College's attention to the disrepair of the wall round the Wood. When they went on to urge the desirability of building some protection over the Well itself the College began to be restive. Before Curry sat down, everyone in the room desired strongly to make the outer world understand that Bragdon Wood was the private property of Bracton College. Then he rose again to read another letter. This was from a society of Spiritualists who wanted leave to investigate the "reported phenomena" in the Wood - a letter "connected," as Curry said, "with the next, which, with the Warden's permission, "I will now read to you." This was from a firm who had heard of the Spiritualists' proposal and wanted permission to make a film of the Spiritualists looking for the phenomena. Curry was directed to write short refusals to all three letters.

    Then came a new voice. Lord Feverstone had risen. He agreed with the action taken about these letters from busybodies outside. But was it not, after all, a fact that the wall of the Wood was in a very unsatisfactory condition? At once the Bursar, James Busby, was on his feet. He welcomed Lord Feverstone's question. He had recently taken expert advice about the wall of the Wood. "Unsatisfactory" was too mild a word. Nothing but a complete new wall would meet the situation. With great difficulty the probable cost of this was elicited from him: and when the College heard the figure it gasped. Lord Feverstone enquired whether the Bursar was seriously proposing that the College should undertake such an expense. Busby (a large ex-clergyman with a bushy black beard) replied with some temper that if he were to make a suggestion it would be that the question could not be treated in isolation from some important financial considerations which it would become his duty to lay before them later in the day. There was a pause at this ominous statement, until gradually, one by one, the "outsiders" and "obstructionists", the men not included in the Progressive Element, began coming into the debate. The Progressive Element let them talk for nearly ten minutes. Then Lord Feverstone wanted to know whether it was possible that the Bursar and the Preservation Committee could really find no alternative between building a new wall and allowing Bragdon Wood to degenerate into a common. The Bursar answered in a low voice that he had in a purely theoretical way got some facts about possible alternatives. A barbed-wire fence-but the rest was drowned in a roar of disapproval. Finally, the matter was postponed for consideration at the next meeting.

    During this item the thoughts of more than one Fellow had turned to lunch, and attention had wandered. But when Curry rose at five minutes to one to introduce Item 2, there was a sharp revival of interest. It was called "Rectification of an Anomaly in the Stipends of Junior Fellows". I would not like to say what the junior Fellows of Bracton were getting at this time, but I believe it hardly covered the expenses of their residence in College. Studdock, who had recently emerged from this class, understood the look in their faces. The Bursar rose to reply to Curry's proposal. He hoped that no one would imagine he approved the anomaly which had, in 1910, excluded the lowest class of the Fellows from the new clauses in the eighteenth paragraph of Statute 17; but it was his duty to point out that this was the second proposal involving heavy expenditure which had come before them that morning. It could not be isolated from the whole problem of the financial position of the College which he hoped to lay before them during the afternoon. A great deal more was said, but when, at quarter to two, the meeting adjourned for lunch, every junior had it fixed in his mind that a new wall for the Wood and a rise in his own stipend were strictly exclusive alternatives.

    In this frame of mind the College returned after lunch to consider its finances. It was a sunny afternoon; and the smooth flow of the Bursar's exposition had a sort of hypnotic power. Fellows of colleges do not always find money matters easy to understand. They gathered that the situation was bad; very bad indeed. It is very seldom that the affairs of a large corporation, indefinitely committed to the advancement of learning, can be described as being, in a quite unambiguous sense, satisfactory. Some minor retrenchments and re-investments were approved, and the College adjourned for tea in a chastened mood. Studdock rang up Jane and told her he would not be home for dinner.

    It was not till six o'clock that all the converging lines of thought and feeling aroused by the earlier business came together upon the question of selling Bragdon Wood. It was not called the sale "of Bragdon Wood", but "of the area coloured pink on the plan which, with the Warden's permission, I will now pass round the table". Curry admitted that this involved the loss of part of the Wood. In fact, the proposed N.I.C.E. site still left to the College a strip about sixteen feet broad along the far half of the south side. In answer to questions he admitted that unfortunately -or perhaps fortunately-the Well itself was in the area which the N.I.C.E. wanted. The rights of the College to access would, of course, be guaranteed: and the Well and its pavement would be preserved by the Institute. He refrained from advice and merely mentioned the quite astonishing figure which the N.I.C.E. was offering. After that, the meeting became lively. The advantages of the sale discovered themselves one by one like ripe fruit dropping into the hand. It solved the problem of the wall: it solved the problem of protecting ancient monuments: it solved the financial problem: it looked like solving the problem of the junior Fellows' stipends.

    The few real "Die-hards" present, to whom Bragdon Wood was almost a basic assumption of life, could hardly bring themselves to realise what was happening. When at last old Jewel, blind and shaky, rose to his feet, his voice was hardly audible. At this moment Lord Feverstone folded his arms, and looking straight at the old man said in a very loud, clear voice:

    "If Canon Jewel wishes us not to hear his views, I suggest that his end could be better attained by silence."

    Jewel had been already old in the days before the first war when old men were treated with kindness, and he had never succeeded in getting used to the modern world. He stared with puzzled eyes. The motion was carried.

    After leaving the flat that morning Jane also had gone down to Edgestow and had bought a hat, when Mrs. Dimble met her coming out of Sparrow's and said: "Hullo, dear! Been buying a hat ? Come home to lunch and let's see it. Cecil has the car just round the corner."

    Cecil Dimble, a Fellow of Northumberland, had been Jane's tutor for her last years as a student, and Mrs. Dimble (one tended to call her "Mother Dimble") had been a kind of universal aunt to all the girls of her year. A liking for the female pupils of one's husband is not, perhaps, so common as might be wished among dons' wives: but Mrs. Dimble appeared to like all Dr. Dimble's pupils.

    They drove over the bridge to the north of Bracton and then south along the bank of the Wynd to the Dimbles' front door.

    "How lovely it's looking!" said Jane as she got out of the car. The Dimbles' garden was famous.

    "You'd better take a good look at it then," said Dr. Dimble.

    "What do you mean?" asked Jane.

    "Haven't you told her?" said Dr. Dimble to his wife.

    "I haven't screwed myself up to it yet," said Mrs. Dimble. "Anyway, I expect she knows. Your own college is being so tiresome, dear. They're turning us out. They won't renew the lease."

    "Oh, Mrs. Dimble!" exclaimed Jane. "And I didn't even know this was Bracton property. Mark never talks about College business."

    "Good husbands never do," said Dr. Dimble. "At least only about the business of other people's colleges. Is no one coming in to have lunch?"

    Dimble guessed that Bracton was going to sell the Wood and everything else it owned on that side of the river, and felt too strongly on the subject to wish to talk about it before the wife of one of the Bracton men.

    "You'll have to wait for your lunch till I've seen Jane's new hat," said Mother Dimble, and forthwith hurried Jane upstairs. Then followed some minutes of conversation which was strictly feminine in the old-fashioned sense. Jane, while preserving a certain sense of superiority, found it indefinably comforting. When the hat was being put away again Mrs. Dimble suddenly said:

    "There's nothing wrong, is there?"

    "Wrong," said Jane. "Why? What should there be?"

    "You're not looking yourself."

    "Oh, I'm all right," said Jane, aloud. Mentally she added: "She's dying to know whether I'm going to have a baby. That sort of woman always is."

    "Do you hate being kissed?" said Mrs. Dimble unexpectedly.

    "Do I hate being kissed?" thought Jane to herself. "That indeed is the question. Hope not for mind in women---" She had intended to reply "Of course not," but inexplicably, and to her great annoyance, found herself crying instead. And then, for a moment, Mrs. Dimble became simply a grown-up as grown-ups had been when one was a very small child. Not to detest being petted and pawed was contrary to her whole theory of life: yet before they went downstairs she had told Mrs. Dimble that she was not going to have a baby but was a bit depressed from being very much alone and from a nightmare.

    During lunch Dr. Dimble talked about the Arthurian legend. "It's really wonderful," he said, "how the whole thing hangs together, even in a late version like Malory's. You've noticed how there are two sets of characters? There's Guinevere and Lancelot and all those, all very courtly and nothing particularly British about them. But then in the background there are all those dark people like Morgan and Morgawse, who are very British indeed and-usually more or less hostile. Mixed up with magic. Merlin too, of course, is British. Doesn't it look very like a picture of Britain as it must have been on the eve of the invasion?"

    "How do you mean, Dr. Dimble?" said Jane. "Well, wouldn't there have been one section of society that was almost purely Roman ? People talking a Celticised Latin-something that would sound to us rather like Spanish: and fully Christian. But farther up country, in the out-of-the-way places, there would have been little courts ruled by real old British under-kings, talking something like Welsh, and practising a certain amount of the Druidical religion."

    "And which would Arthur himself have been?" said Jane.

    "One can imagine a man of the old British line, but a Christian and a fully-trained general with Roman technique, trying to pull this whole society together. There'd be jealousy from his own British family. And always that under-tow, that tug back to Druidism."

    "And where would Merlin be?"

    "Yes. . . . He's the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is ? He's not evil: yet he's a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail."

    "It is rather puzzling. I hadn't thought of it before."

    "I often wonder," said Dr. Dimble, " whether Merlin doesn't represent the last trace of something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerers."

    "What a horrid idea," said Mrs. Dimble. "Anyway, Merlin happened a long time ago if he happened at all, and he's safely dead and buried under Bragdon Wood as we all know."

    "Buried but not dead, according to the story," corrected Dr. Dimble.

    "Ugh!" said Jane involuntarily.

    "I wonder what they will find if they start digging up that place for the foundations of their N.I.C.E.," said Dr. Dimble.

    "First mud and then water," said Mrs. Dimble. "That's why they can't really build it there."

    "So you'd think," said her husband. "And if so, why should they want to come here at all? They're not likely to be influenced by any poetic fancy about Merlin's mantle having fallen on them!"

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