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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 5)     
    That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3) by C.S.Lewis
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    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.

    CHAPTER THREE

    BELBURY AND ST. ANNE'S-ON-THE-HILL

    ON his way up the wide staircase Mark caught sight of himself in a mirror. The blob of cotton-wool on his lip had been blown awry during the journey and revealed a patch of blackened blood beneath it. A moment later he found himself in a room with a blazing fire, being introduced to Mr. John Wither, Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E.

    Wither was a white-haired old man with a courtly manner. His face was clean-shaven and very large indeed, with watery blue eyes and something rather vague and chaotic about it. He did not appear to be giving them his whole attention, though his actual words and gestures were polite to the point of effusiveness. He said it was a great, a very great, pleasure to welcome Mr. Studdock among them. It added to the deep obligations under which Lord Feverstone had already laid him. He hoped they had had an agreeable journey. Mr. Wither appeared to be under the impression that they had come by air and, when this was corrected, that they had come from London by train. Then he began enquiring whether Mr. Studdock found his quarters perfectly comfortable and had to be reminded that they had only that moment arrived. "I suppose," thought Mark, "the old chap is trying to put me at my ease."In fact, Mr. Wither's conversation was having precisely the opposite effect. Mark wished he would offer him a cigarette. His growing conviction that this man knew nothing about him, and that all the schemes and promises of Feverstone were dissolving into mist, was uncomfortable. At last he endeavoured to bring Mr. Wither to the point by saying that he was still not quite clear in what capacity he would be able to assist the Institute.

    "I assure you, Mr. Studdock," said the Deputy Director with an unusually far-away look in his eye, "that you needn't anticipate the slightest ... er ... the slightest difficulty on that point. There was never any idea of circumscribing your activities and your general influence on policy, much less your relations with your colleagues and what I might call in general the terms of reference under which you would be collaborating with us, without the fullest possible consideration of your own views and, indeed, your own advice. You will find us, Mr. Studdock, if I might express myself in that way, a very happy family."

    "Oh, don't misunderstand me, sir," said Mark. "I only meant that I felt I should like some sort of idea of what exactly I should be doing if I came to you."

    "Well now, when you speak of coming to us," said the Deputy Director, " that raises a point on which I hope there is no misunderstanding. I think we all agreed that no question of residence need be raised-I mean, at this stage. We thought, we all thought, that if you cared to live in Cambridge---"

    "Edgestow," prompted Lord Feverstone. "Ah yes, Edgestow," here the Deputy Director turned, round and addressed Feverstone. "I was just explaining to Mr. ... er ... Studdock, and I feel sure you will fully agree with me, that nothing was farther from the mind of the committee than to dictate in any way, or even to advise, where Mr. --, where your friend should live. Of course, wherever he lives we should place air and road transport at his disposal. I dare say you have already explained to him that all questions of that sort will adjust themselves without the smallest difficulty."

    "Really, sir," said Mark, "I wasn't thinking about that. I haven't-I mean I shouldn't have the smallest objection to living anywhere; I only---"

    "But I assure you, Mr. ... er ... I assure you, sir, that there is not the smallest objection to your residing wherever you may find convenient. There was never, at any stage, the slightest suggestion---" but here Mark, in desperation, ventured to interrupt himself.

    "It is the exact nature of the work," he said, "and of my qualifications for it that I wanted to get clear."

    "My dear friend," said the Deputy Director, " you need not have the slightest uneasiness in that direction. As I said before, you will find us a very happy family, and may feel perfectly satisfied that no questions as to your entire suitability have been agitating anyone's mind in the least. I should not be offering you a position among us if there were the slightest danger of your not being completely welcome to all, or the least suspicion that your very valuable qualities were not fully appreciated. You are-you are among 'friends here, Mr. Studdock. I should be the last person to advise you to connect yourself with any organisation where you ran the risk of being exposed ... er ... to disagreeable personal contacts."

    Mark did not ask again in so many words what the N.I.C.E. wanted him to do; partly because he began to be afraid that he was supposed to know this already, and partly because a perfectly direct question would have sounded a crudity in that room-a crudity which might suddenly exclude him from the warm and almost drugged atmosphere of vague, yet heavily important, confidence.

    "You are very kind," he said. "The only thing I should like to get just a little clearer is the exact-well, the exact scope of the appointment."

    "Well," said Mr. Wither in a voice so low and rich that it was almost a sigh. "I am very glad you have raised that issue now in a quite informal way. Obviously neither you nor I would wish to commit ourselves, in this room, in any sense which was at all injurious to the powers of the committee. We do not really think, among ourselves, in terms of strictly demarcated functions, of course. Everyone in the Institute feels that his own work is not so much a departmental contribution as a moment or grade in the progressive self-definition of an organic whole."

    And Mark said-for he was young and shy and vain and timid-"I do think that is so important. The elasticity of your organisation is one of the things that attracts me." After that, he had no further chance of bringing the Director to the point, despite the torturing recurrence of the question, "What are we both talking about?"

    At the very end of the interview there came one moment of clarity.- Mr. Wither supposed that he, Mark, would find it convenient to join the N.I.C.E. club: even for the next few days he would be freer as a member than as someone's guest. Mark agreed and then flushed crimson on learning that the easiest course was to become a life member at the cost of £200.

    "How silly," he said aloud, "I haven't got my chequebook with me."

    A moment later he found himself on the stairs with Feverstone.

    "Well?" asked Mark eagerly.

    Feverstone did not seem to hear him.

    "Well?" repeated Mark. "When shall I know my fate? I mean, have I got the job?"

    "Hullo, Guy!" bawled Feverstone suddenly to a man in the hall beneath. Next moment he had trotted down to the foot of the stairs, grasped his friend warmly by the hand, and disappeared. Mark, following him more slowly, found himself in the hall, among the groups and pairs of chattering men, who were all crossing it towards the big folding doors on his left.

    The agreeable smells which came from the folding doors made it obvious that people were going to lunch. In the end he decided that he couldn't stand there looking like a fool any longer, and went in.

    There was a single long table, already so nearly filled that, after looking in vain for Feverstone, he had to sit down beside a stranger. "I suppose one sits where one likes?" he murmured as he did so; but the stranger apparently did not hear. He was eating very quickly and talking at the same time to his neighbour on the other side.

    "That's just it," he was saying. "As I told him, it makes no difference to me which way they settle it. I've no objection to the I.J.P. people taking over the whole thing if that's what the D.D. wants, but what I dislike is three H.D.s all tumbling over one another about some job that could really be done by a clerk. It's becoming ridiculous."

    It was a relief to Mark when people began getting up from table. Following the general movement, he recrossed the hall and. came into a large room where coffee was being served. Here at last he saw Feverstone. Mark wished to approach him, if only to find out whether he were expected to stay the night, but the knot of men round Feverstone was of that confidential kind which it is difficult to join. He moved towards one of the many tables and began turning over the pages of an illustrated weekly. When he looked up he found himself face to face with one of his own colleagues, a Fellow of Bracton, called Hingest. The Progressive Element called him Bill the Blizzard.

    Hingest had not been at the College meeting, and was hardly on speaking terms with Feverstone. Mark realised with a certain awe that here was a man directly in touch with the N.I.C.E.-one who started at a point beyond Feverstone. Bill the Blizzard had an old-fashioned curly moustache in which white had almost triumphed over yellow, a beak-like nose, and a bald head.

    "This is an unexpected pleasure," said Mark with a hint of formality. He was always a little afraid of Hingest.

    "Huh?" grunted Bill. "Eh ? Oh, it's you, Studdock ? Didn't know they'd secured your services here."

    "I was sorry not to see you at the College meeting yesterday," said Mark.

    This was a lie. The Progressive Element always found Hingest's presence an embarrassment. As a scientist-and the only really eminent scientist they had-he was their rightful property; but he was that hateful anomaly, the wrong sort of scientist. Glossop, who was a classic, was his chief friend in College. He had the air of not attaching much importance to his own revolutionary discoveries in chemistry and of valuing himself much more on being a Hingest: the family was of almost mythical antiquity.

    "Eh? What's that? College meeting?" said the Blizzard. "What were they talking about?"

    "About the sale of Bragdon Wood."

    "All nonsense," muttered the Blizzard. "I hope you would have agreed with the decision we came to. "It made no difference what decision they came to.

    "Oh!" said Mark with some surprise. ; It was all nonsense. The N.I.C.E. would have had the Wood in any case. They had powers to compel a sale."

    "What an extraordinary thing! I was given to understand they were going to Cambridge if we didn't sell."

    "Not a word of truth in it. And there's nothing extraordinary in the fact that the N.I.C.E. should wish to hand over to Bracton the odium of turning the heart of England into a cross between an abortive American hotel and a glorified gas-works. The only puzzle is why the N.I.C.E. should want that bit of land."

    "I suppose we shall find out as things go on."

    "You may, I shan't."

    "Oh?" said Mark interrogatively.

    "I've had enough of it," said Hingest, lowering his voice, "I'm leaving to-night. I don't know what you were doing at Bracton, but if it was any good I'd advise you to go back and stick to it."

    "Really!" said Mark. "Why do you say that?"

    "Doesn't matter for an old fellow like me," said Hingest, "but they could play the devil with you."

    "As a matter of fact," said Mark, "I haven't fully made up my mind. I don't even know yet what my job would be if I stayed."

    "What's your subject?"

    "Sociology."

    "Huh!" said Hingest. "In that case I can soon point you out the man you'd be under."

    "Perhaps you could introduce me."

    "All right," said Hingest. "No business of mine." Then he added in a louder voice, "Steele!"

    Steele turned round. He was a tall, unsmiling man with that kind of face which, though long and horse-like, has nevertheless rather thick and pouting lips.

    "This is Studdock," said Hingest. "The new man for your department." Then he turned away.

    "Oh," said Steele. Then after a pause, "Did he say my department?"

    "That's what he said," replied Mark. "I'm a sociologist-if that throws any light on it."

    "I'm H.D. for sociology all right," said Steele. "But this is the first I've heard about you. Who told you you were to be there?"

    "Well," said Mark, "the thing is rather vague. I've had a talk with the Deputy Director, but we didn't go into details."

    Steele whistled. "I say, Cosser," he called out to a freckle-faced man who was passing by, "listen to this. Feverstone has just unloaded this chap on our department without a word to me about it. What do you think of that?"

    "Well I'm damned!" said Cosser.

    "I'm sorry," said Mark, a little stiffly. "I seem to have been put in a false position. I only came over as an experiment. It is a matter of indifference to me whether I take a job in the N.I.C.E. or not."

    "You see," said Steele to Cosser, " there isn't really any room for a man in our show-specially for someone who doesn't know the work. Unless they put him on the U.L."

    "That's right," said Cosser.

    "Mr. Studdock, I think," said a new voice at Mark's elbow, a treble voice which seemed disproportionate to the huge hill of a man whom he saw when he turned his head. He recognised the speaker. His dark, smooth face and black hair were unmistakable, and so was the accent. This was Professor Filostrato, the physiologist, whom Mark had sat next to at a dinner two years before. Mark was charmed that such a man remembered him.

    "I am very glad you have come to join us," said Filostrato, taking hold of Mark's arm and gently piloting him away from Steele and Cosser.

    "To tell you the truth," said Mark, "I'm not sure that I have. I was brought over by Feverstone but he has disappeared, and Steele---"

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