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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 16)     
    That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3) by C.S.Lewis
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    "What did he say?"

    "He said something about ' doing it in a few days if possible'." , -

    "Was that all?"

    "Very nearly. You see Mark couldn't stand it. I knew he wouldn't be able to: I saw he was going to fall. He was sick too. Then they got him out of the room." All three were silent for a few seconds. "Was that all?" said Miss Ironwood. "Yes," said Jane. "That's all I remember. I think I woke up then."

    The Director took a deep breath. "Well!" he said, glancing at Miss Ironwood, " it becomes plainer and plainer. We must hold a council this evening. Make all arrangements." He paused and turned to Jane. "I am afraid this is very bad for you, my dear," he said; "and worse for him."

    "You mean for Mark, sir?"

    "Yes. Don't think hardly of him. He is suffering. If we are defeated we shall all go down with him. If we win we will rescue him; he cannot be far gone yet. We are quite used to trouble about husbands here, you know. Poor Ivy's is in jail."

    "In jail?"

    "Oh yes-for ordinary theft. But quite a good fellow. He'll be all right again."

    Mark woke next morning to the consciousness that his head ached all over . . . and then, as one of the poets says, he " discovered in his mind an inflammation swollen and deformed, his memory ". Oh, but it had been a nightmare, it must be shoved away, it would vanish away now that he was fully awake. It was an absurdity. A head without any body underneath. A head that could speak when they turned on the air and the artificial saliva with taps in the next room.

    But he knew it was true. And he could not, as they say, " take it". He was very ashamed of this, for he wished to be considered one of the tough ones.

    Meantime he must get up. He must do something about Jane. Apparently he would have to bring her to Belbury. His mind had made this decision for him at some moment he did not remember. He must get her, to save his life. They would kill him if he annoyed them; perhaps behead him. . . .

    It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical-merely "Modern ". The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.

    He was late for breakfast, but that made little difference, for he could not eat. He drank several cups of black coffee and then went into the writing-room. Here he sat for a long time drawing things on the blotting paper. This letter to Jane proved almost impossible now that it came to the point.

    "Hullo, Studdock!" said the voice of Miss Hardcastle. "Writing to little wifie, eh?"

    "Damn!" said Mark. "You've made me drop my pen." Not since he had been bullied at school had he known what it was to hate and dread anyone as he now hated and dreaded this woman.

    "I've got bad news for you, sonny," she said presently. "What is it?"

    She did not answer quite at once and he knew she was studying him.

    "I'm worried about little wifie, and that's a fact," she said at last.

    "What do you mean?"

    "I looked her up," said Miss Hardcastle, "all on your account, too. I thought Edgestow wasn't too healthy a place for her to be at present."

    "Can't you tell me what's wrong?"

    "Don't shout, honey. It's only-well, I thought she was behaving pretty oddly when I saw her."

    Mark well remembered his conversation with his wife on the morning he left for Belbury. A new stab of fear pierced him. Might not this detestable woman be speaking the truth?

    "What did she say?" he asked.

    "If there is anything wrong with her in that way," said the Fairy, " take my advice Studdock, and have her over here at once. I wouldn't like to have anyone belonging to me popped into Edgestow Asylum. Specially now that we're getting our emergency powers. They'll be using the ordinary patients experimentally you know. If you'll just sign this form I'll run over after lunch and have her here this evening."

    "But you haven't given me the slightest notion what's wrong with her."

    "She kept on talking about someone who'd broken into your flat and burned her with cigars. Then, most unfortunately, she noticed my cheroot, and, if you please, she identified me with this imaginary persecutor. Of course, after that I could do no good."

    "I must go home at once," said Mark, getting up.

    "Don't be a fool, lovey," said Miss Hardcastle. "You're in a damn dangerous position already. You'll about do yourself in if you're absent without leave now. Send me. Sign the form. That's the sensible way to do it."

    "But a moment ago you said she couldn't stand you at any price."

    "Oh, that wouldn't make any odds. I say, Studdock, you don't think little wifie could be jealous, do you?"

    "Jealous? Of you?" said Mark with uncontrollable disgust.

    "Where are you off to?" said the Fairy sharply.

    "To see the D.D. and then home."

    "Come back, Studdock," shouted the Fairy. "Wait! Don't be a bloody fool."But Mark was already in the hall. He put on his hat and coat, ran upstairs and knocked at the door of the Deputy Director's office.

    There was no answer, but the door was not quite shut. He ventured to push it open a little farther, and saw the Deputy Director sitting with his back to the door. "Excuse me, sir," said Mark. "Might I speak to you for a few minutes." There was no answer. "Excuse me, sir," said Mark in a louder voice, but the figure neither spoke nor moved. Mark went in and walked round to the other side of the desk; but when he turned to look at Wither he caught his breath, for he thought he was looking into the face of a corpse. A moment later he recognised his mistake. In the stillness of the room he could hear the man breathing. He was not even asleep, for his eyes were open. He was not unconscious, for his eyes rested momentarily on Mark and then looked away. "I beg your pardon, sir," began Mark, and then stopped. The Deputy Director was not listening. What looked out of those pale, watery eyes was, in a sense, infinity-the shapeless and the interminable. The room was still and cold. It was impossible to speak to a face like that.

    When at -last Mr. Wither spoke, his eyes were fixed on some remote point beyond the window.

    "I know who it is," said Wither. "Your name is Studdock. You had better have stayed outside. Go away."

    Mark's nerve suddenly broke. All the slowly mounting fears of the last few days ran together into one fixed determination, and a few seconds later he was going downstairs three steps at a time. Then he was crossing the hall. Then he was out, and walking down the drive.

    He was out of the grounds now: he was crossing the road. He stopped suddenly. Something impossible was happening. There was a figure before" him; a tall, very tall, slightly stooping figure, sauntering and humming a little dreary tune; the Deputy Director himself. And in one moment all that brittle hardihood was gone from Mark's mood. He turned back. He stood in the road; this seemed to him the worst pain that he had ever felt. Then, tired, so tired that he felt his legs would hardly carry him, he walked very slowly back into Belbury.

    Mr. MacPhee had a little room at the Manor which he called his office, and in this tidy but dusty apartment he sat with Jane Studdock before dinner that evening, having invited her there to give her what he called "a brief, objective outline of the situation ".

    "I should premise at the outset, Mrs. Studdock," he said, " that I have known the Director for a great many years and that for most of his life he was a philologist. His original name was Ransom."

    "Not Ransom's Dialect and Semantics?" said Jane. "Aye. That's the man," said MacPhee. "Well, about six years ago, I have all the dates in a wee book there- came his first disappearance. He was clean gone-not a trace of him-for about nine months. And then one day what does he do but turn up again in Cambridge and go sick. And he wouldn't say where he'd been except to a few friends."

    "Well?" said Jane eagerly.

    "He said," answered MacPhee, producing his snuff-box and laying great emphasis on the word said, "He said he'd been to the planet Mars."

    "You mean he said this . . . while he was ill?"

    "No, no. He says so still. Make what you can of it, that's his story."

    "I believe it," said Jane. MacPhee selected a pinch of snuff.

    "I'm giving you the facts," he said. "He told us he'd been to Mars, kidnapped, by Professor Weston and Mr. Devine- Lord Feverstone as he now is. And by his own account he'd escaped from them-on Mars, you'll understand-and been wandering about there alone."

    "It's uninhabited, I suppose?"

    "We have no evidence except his own story. You are aware, Mrs. Studdock, that a man in complete solitude even on this earth-an explorer, for example- gets into remarkable states of consciousness."

    "You mean he might have imagined things that weren't there?"

    "I'm making no comments," said MacPhee. "I'm recording. By his accounts there are all kinds of creatures walking about there; that's maybe why he has turned this house into a sort of menagerie, but no matter for that. But he also says he met one kind of creature there which specially concerns us. He called them eldils."

    "Were these things . . . well, intelligent? Could they talk?"

    "Aye. They could talk. They were intelligent, which is not always the same thing."

    "In fact these were the Martians?"

    "That's just what they weren't, according to him. They were on Mars, but they didn't rightly belong there. He says they are creatures that live in empty space."

    "But there's no air."

    "I'm telling you his story. He says they don't breathe. He said also that they don't reproduce their species and don't die."

    "What on earth are they like?"

    "I'm telling you how he described them."

    "Are they huge?" said Jane almost involuntarily.

    "The point, Mrs. Studdock, is this. Dr. Ransom claims that he has received continual visits from these creatures since he returned to Earth. So much for his first disappearance. Then came the second. That time he said he'd been in the planet Venus-taken there by these eldils."

    "Venus is inhabited by them, too?"

    "You'll forgive me observing that this remark shows you have not grasped what I'm telling you. These creatures are not planetary creatures at all, though they may alight on a planet here and there; like a bird alighting on a tree. There's some of them, he says, are more or less permanently attached to particular planets, but they're not native there."

    "They are, I gather, more or less friendly?"

    "That is the Director's idea about them, with one exception."

    "What's that?"

    "The eldils that have for centuries concentrated on our own planet. We seem to have had no luck in our particular complement of parasites. And that, Mrs. Studdock, brings me to the point."

    Jane waited. MacPhee's manner almost neutralised the strangeness of what he was telling her.

    "The long and the short of it is," said he, " that this house is dominated either by the creatures I'm talking about or by a sheer delusion. It is by advices he thinks he has received from eldils that the Director has discovered the conspiracy against the human race; and it's on instructions from eldils that he's conducting the campaign-if you call it conducting! It may have occurred to you to wonder how any man thinks we're going to defeat a conspiracy by growing winter vegetables and training performing bears. It is a question I have propounded on more than one occasion. The answer is always the same: we're waiting for orders."

    "From the eldils ? It was them he meant when he spoke of his Masters?"

    "It would be."

    "But, Mr. MacPhee, I thought you said the ones on our planet were hostile."

    "That's a good question," said MacPhee, " but it's not our own ones that the Director claims to be in communication with. It's his friends from outer space. Our own crew, the terrestrial eldils, are at the back of the whole conspiracy."

    "You mean that the other eldils, out of space, come here -to this house?"

    "That is what the Director thinks."

    "But you must know whether it's true or not."

    "How?"

    "Have you seen them?"

    "That's not a question to be answered Aye or No. I've seen a good many things in my time that weren't there or weren't what they pretended to be; rainbows and reflections and sunsets, not to mention dreams."

    "You have seen something, then?"

    "Aye. But we must keep an open mind. It might be an hallucination. It might be a conjuring trick . . ."

    "By the Director?" asked Jane angrily. "Do you really expect me to believe that the Director is a charlatan?"

    "I wish, ma'am," said MacPhee, " you could consider the matter without constantly using such terms as believe. Obviously, conjuring is one of the hypotheses that any impartial investigator must take into account. The fact that it is a hypothesis specially uncongenial to the emotions of this investigator or that, is neither here nor there."

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