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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 10)     
    That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3) by C.S.Lewis
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    He rang the bell and ordered a large whisky. He must write a very careful and rather elusive letter. His first draft was, he thought, not vague enough: it could be used as a proof that he had abandoned all idea of a job at Belbury. But then, if it were too vague, it would do no good. Oh damn, damn, damn the whole thing. In the end, with the aid of the whisky and of a great many cigarettes, he produced the following:

    THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE

    FOR CO-ORDINATED EXPERIMENTS,

    BELBURY.

    Oct. 21st, 19-.

    "MY DEAR CURRY,- Feverstone must have got me wrong. I never made the slightest suggestion of resigning my Fellowship and don't in the least wish to do so. As a matter of fact, I have almost made up my mind not to take a fulltime job with the N.I.C.E. and hope to be back in College in a day or two. So be sure and contradict it if you hear anyone saying I am thinking of leaving Edgestow. I hope you'll enjoy your jaunt to Cambridge: what circles you do move in! - Yours, MARK G. STUDDOCK.

    "P.S.-Laird wouldn't have done in any case. He got a third; and his only published work has been treated as a joke."

    The relief of having finished the letter was only momentary, for almost as soon as he had sealed it the problem of how to pass the rest of this day returned to him. He decided to go and sit in his own room: but when he went up there he found the bed stripped and a vacuum cleaner in the middle of the floor. He came down and tried the lounge; the servants were tidying it. He looked into the library. It was empty but for two men who were talking with their heads close together. They stopped and looked up as soon as he entered, obviously waiting for him to go. In the hall he saw Steele himself standing by the notice-board and talking to a man with a pointed beard. Neither looked at Mark, but as he passed them they became silent. He opened the front door and looked out: the fog was thick, wet, and cold.

    This day was so long to Mark that a faithful account of it would be unreadable.

    Some time after lunch he met Stone. He knew by experience how dangerous it is to be friends with a sinking man or even to be seen with him: you cannot keep him afloat and he may pull you under. But his craving for companionship was now acute; against his better judgement he said, "Hullo!"

    Stone gave a start as if to be spoken to were almost a frightening experience. "Good afternoon," he said nervously and made to pass on.

    And Mark did not answer because at that moment he saw the Deputy Director approaching. He was to discover during the next few weeks that no passage and no room at Belbury was safe from the prolonged indoor walks of the Deputy Director. They could not be regarded as a form of espionage, for the creak of Wither's boots and the dreary little tune which he was nearly always humming would have defeated any such purpose. One heard him quite a long way off. Often one saw him a long way off as well, staring vaguely towards one. Very slowly he came towards them, looked in their direction though it was not plain from his face whether he recognised them or not, and passed on. Neither of the young men attempted to resume their conversation.

    At tea Mark saw Feverstone and went at once to sit beside him. He knew that the worst thing a man in his position could do was to try to force himself on anyone, but he was now feeling desperate.

    "I say, Feverstone," he began gaily, "I haven't had exactly what you'd call a glowing reception from Steele. But the D.D. won't hear of my leaving. And the Fairy seems to want me to write newspaper articles. What the hell am I supposed to be doing?" Feverstone laughed long and loud.

    "Because," concluded Mark, "I'm damned if I can find out. I've tried to tackle the old boy direct..."

    "God !" said Feverstone, laughing even louder. "Well, how the devil is one to find out what's wanted if nobody offers any information?"

    "Quite."

    "Oh, and how on earth did Curry get the idea that I'm resigning my Fellowship?"

    "Aren't you?"

    "I never had the faintest notion of resigning it." Feverstone's smile brightened and widened. "It doesn't make any odds, you know," he said. "If the N.I.C.E. want you to have a nominal job somewhere outside Belbury, you'll have one: and if they don't, you won't. Just like that."

    "I'm merely trying to retain the Fellowship I already had. One doesn't want to fall between two stools."

    "One doesn't want to."

    "You mean?"

    "Take my advice and get into Wither's good books again as soon as you can. I gave you a good start, but you seem to have rubbed him up the wrong way. And just between ourselves, I wouldn't be too thick with the Fairy: it won't do you any good higher up."

    "In the meantime," said Mark, "I've written to Curry to explain that it's all rot about my resignation."

    "No harm if it amuses you," said Feverstone, still smiling.

    "Well, I don't suppose College wants to kick me out simply because Curry misunderstood something said by you."

    "You can't be deprived of a Fellowship under any statute I know, except for gross immorality."

    "Of course not. I didn't mean that. I meant not being re-elected when I come up for re-election next term."

    "Oh. I see."

    "And that's why I must rely on you to get that idea out of Curry's head."

    "Me?"

    "Yes."

    "Why me?"

    "Well-damn it all, Feverstone, you know perfectly well that there was no doubt about my re-election until you spoke a word in Curry's ear."

    Feverstone eyed the muffin critically. "You make me rather tired," he said. "And I would advise you in talking to people here to adopt a more agreeable manner. Otherwise your life may be ' nasty, poor, brutish, and short!"

    "Short?" said Mark. "Is that a threat? Do you mean my life at Bracton or at the N.I.C.E.?"

    "I shouldn't stress the distinction too much if I were you," said Feverstone.

    And so Mark knew that if he lost the Belbury job he would lose his Fellowship at Bracton as well.

    During these days Jane kept on going into Edgestow to find another " woman " instead of Mrs. Maggs. On one of these occasions she was delighted to find herself suddenly addressed by Camilla Denniston. Camilla had just stepped out of a car and next moment she introduced a tall, dark man as her husband. Jane saw that both the Dennistons were the sort of people she liked. She knew that Mr. Denniston had once been a friend of Mark's; and her first thought was to wonder why Mark's present friends were so inferior to those he once had.

    "We were just coming to see you," said Camilla. "Look here, we have lunch with us. Let's drive you up to the woods beyond Sandown and all feed together in the car."

    Jane thought this foggy day an odd choice for a picnic, but agreed.

    They left the unfenced road beyond Sandown and went across grass and finally came to rest in a sort of little grassy bay with a fir thicket on one side and a group of beeches on the other. Then there was some unstrapping of baskets, and then sandwiches and sherry and hot coffee and cigarettes.

    "Now," said Denniston at last, "I must tell you. Our little household, or whatever you like to call it, is run by a Mr. Fisher-King. At least that is the name he has recently taken. He had a sister in India, Mrs. Fisher-King. She has died and left him a large fortune on condition that he took the name. She was a friend of the great native Christian mystic whom you may have heard of-the Sura. And that's the point. The Sura had reason to believe that a great danger was hanging over the human race. And just before the end he became convinced that it would actually come to a head in this island. Mrs. Fisher-King handed over the problem to her brother. He was to collect a company to watch for this danger, and strike when it came." Jane waited.

    "The Sura said that when the time came we should find a seer: a person with second sight."

    "Not that we'd get a seer, Arthur," said Camilla, "that a seer would turn up. Either we or the other side would get her."

    "And it looks," said Denniston to Jane, "as if you were the seer."

    "But please," said Jane, smiling, "I don't want to be - anything so exciting."

    Camilla turned to Jane and said, "I gathered from Grace Ironwood that you weren't quite convinced you were a seer. I mean you thought it might be ordinary dreams. Do you still think that?"

    "It's all so strange and-beastly!" said Jane. Her habitual inner prompter was whispering, "Take care. Don't get drawn in. Don't commit yourself to anything." Then an impulse of honesty forced her to add: "As a matter of fact I've had another dream since then. And it turns out to have been true. I saw the murder-Mr. Hingest's murder."

    "There you are," said Camilla. "Oh, you must come in. You must, you must. We've been wondering all this time exactly where the trouble is going to begin: and now you've seen something within a few miles of Edgestow. In fact, we are apparently in the thick of it already-whatever it is."

    "No, Cam, don't," said Denniston. "The Pendragon wouldn't like that. Mrs. Studdock must come in freely. You forget she knows practically nothing at all about us. And we can't tell her much until she has joined. We are, in fact, asking her to take a leap in the dark." He turned to Jane. "It is like that," he said, " like getting married, or becoming a monk. You can't know what it's like until you take the plunge." He did not perhaps know the complicated resentments and resistances which his choice of illustrations awoke in Jane.

    "What exactly are you asking me to do?" she said.

    "To come and see our chief, first of all. And then-well, to join. It would involve making certain promises to him. By the way, what view would Mark take about it?"

    "Mark?" said Jane. "How does he come into it?"

    "Would he object to your joining-putting yourself under the Head's orders and making the promises and all that?"

    "Would he object?" asked Jane. "What on earth would it have to do with him?"

    "Well," said Denniston, hesitating a little, " the Head- or the authorities he obeys-have rather old-fashioned notions. He wouldn't like a married woman to come in, if it could be avoided, without her husband's-without consulting---"

    "Do you mean I'm to ask Mark's permission?" said Jane. The resentment which had been rising and ebbing for several minutes had now overflowed. All this talk of promises and obedience to an unknown Mr. Fisher-King had already repelled her. But the idea of this same person sending her back to get Mark's permission was the cl**ax. For a moment she looked on Mr. Denniston with dislike. She saw him, and Mark, and the Fisher-King man simply as men-complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children or bartering them like cattle. ("And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.") She was very angry.

    "Arthur," said Camilla, "I see a light over there. Do you think it's a bonfire. Let's go for a little walk and look at the fire."

    "Oh, do let's," said Jane.

    They got out. It was warmer in the open than it had by now become in the car. The fire was big and in its middle life. They stood round it and chatted of indifferent matters for a time.

    "I'll tell you what I'll do," said Jane presently. "I won't join your-your-whatever it is. But I'll promise to let you know if I have any more dreams of that sort."

    "That is splendid," said Denniston. "And I think it is as much as we had a right to expect."

    CHAPTER SIX

    FOG

    ANOTHER day dragged past before Mark was able to see the Deputy Director again. He went to him in a chastened frame of mind, anxious to get the job on almost any terms. "I have brought back the Form, sir," he said. "What Form?" asked the Deputy Director. Mark found he was talking to a new and different Wither. The absent-mindedness was still there, but the courtliness was gone. He said he had understood that Mark had already refused the job. He could not, in any event, renew the offer. He spoke vaguely and alarmingly of strains and frictions, of injudicious behaviour, of the danger of making enemies, of the impossibility that the N.I.C.E. could harbour a person who appeared to have quarrelled with all its members in the first week. After he had hinted and murmured Mark into a sufficient state of dejection he threw him, like a bone to a dog, the suggestion of an appointment for a probationary period at six hundred a year. And Mark took it. He attempted to get answers even then to some of his questions. From whom was he to take orders ? Was he to reside at Belbury ?

    Wither replied, "I think, Mr. Studdock, we have already mentioned elasticity as the keynote of the Institute. Unless you are prepared to treat membership as ... er ... a vocation rather than a mere appointment, I could not conscientiously advise you to come to us. There are no watertight compartments. I fear I could not persuade the committee to invent some cut-and-dried position in which you would discharge artificially limited duties and, apart from those, regard your time as your own. Pray allow me to finish, Mr. Studdock. We are, as I have said before, more like a family, or even, perhaps, like a single personality. You must make yourself useful, Mr. Studdock -generally useful. I do not think the Institute could allow anyone to remain in it who grudged this or that piece of service because it fell outside some function which he had chosen to circumscribe by a rigid definition. On the other hand, it would be quite equally disastrous ... I mean for yourself, Mr. Studdock . . . quite equally disastrous if you allowed yourself to be distracted from your real work by unauthorised collaboration ... or, worse still, interference . . . with other members. Concentration, Mr. Studdock, concentration. If you avoid both the errors I have mentioned . . . ah, I do not despair of correcting on your behalf certain unfortunate impressions which, we must admit, your behaviour has already produced. No, Mr. Studdock, I can allow no further discussion. Good morning, Mr. Studdock, good morning."

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