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  • Home > C.S.Lewis > Cosmic > That Hideous Strength (Page 32)     
    That Hideous Strength(Cosmic #3) by C.S.Lewis
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    "Yes, yes," said Filostrato, " that is the real business. Already we begin---"

    "I try to help you all I can on the non-technical side," said Jules. "It's a battle I've been fighting for years. The whole question of our sex-life. What I always say is that once you get the whole thing out into the open, you don't have any more trouble. I want every boy and girl in the country---"

    "God!" said Feverstone to himself. "Forgive me," said Filostrato, who, being a foreigner, had not yet despaired of trying to enlighten Jules. "But that is not precisely the point."

    At this moment the clock struck a quarter. "I say," asked Jules, " what time is this dinner at?"

    "At quarter to eight," said Miss Hardcastle. "You know," said Jules, " this fellow Wither really ought to be here. I mean to say. It isn't the kind of thing a chap expects, is it?"

    "Ecco," said Filostrato. "Someone come."It was indeed Wither who entered the room, in company which Jules had not expected, and Wither's face had certainly good reason to look even more chaotic than usual. He had been bustled round his own institute as if he were a kind of footman. He had not even been allowed to have the supply of air turned on for the Head when they made him take them into the Head's room. And "Merlin " (if it was Merlin) had ignored it. Worst of all, it had gradually become clear to him that this intolerable incubus and his interpreter fully intended to be present at dinner. No one could be more keenly aware than Wither of the absurdity of introducing to Jules a shabby old priest who couldn't speak English, in charge of what looked like a somnambulist chimpanzee dressed up as a Doctor of Philosophy. To tell Jules the real explanation-even if he knew which was the real explanation-was out of the question. It was a minor nuisance that ever since their visit to the Objective Room he had been compelled to have both Frost and Studdock in attendance. Nor did it mend matters that as they approached Jules, and all eyes were fixed upon them, the pseudo-Merlin collapsed into a chair, muttering, and closed his eyes.

    "My dear Director," began Wither, a little out of breath, " this is one of the happiest moments of my life. It has been most unfortunate that I was called away. A remarkable coincidence . . . another very distinguished person has joined us at the very same moment. A foreigner . . ."

    "Oh," interrupted Jules in a slightly rasping voice, "who's he?"

    "Allow me," said Wither, stepping a little to one side. "Do you mean that?" said Jules. The supposed Merlin sat with his arms hanging down on each side of the chair, his eyes closed, his head on one side, and a weak smile on his face. "Is he drunk? Or ill? And who is he, anyway?"

    "He is, as I was observing, a foreigner," began Wither. "Well, that doesn't make him go to sleep the moment he is introduced to me, does it?"

    "Hush!" said Wither, drawing Jules a little out of the group. "There are circumstances-it would be very difficult to go into it here-I have been taken by surprise. Our distinguished guest has, I admit, certain eccentricities, and ... "

    "But who is he?" persisted Jules.

    "His name is ... er ... Ambrosius. Dr. Ambrosius, you know."

    "Never 'eard of him," snapped Jules. "Very few of us have heard of him yet," said Wither. "But everyone will have heard of him soon. That is why, without in the least . . ."

    "And who's that?" asked Jules, indicating the real Merlin. "He looks as if he were enjoying himself."

    "Oh, that is merely Dr. Ambrosius's interpreter."

    "Interpreter? Can't he talk English?"

    "Unfortunately not. He lives rather in a world of his own."

    "And can't you get anyone except a priest to act for him ? We don't want that sort of thing here at all. And who are you?" The last question was addressed to Straik, who had thrust his way up to the Director. "Mr. Jules," he said, fixing the latter with a prophetic eye, "I am the bearer of a message to you which you must hear. I--"

    "Shut up," said Frost.

    "Really, Mr. Straik, really," said Wither. They shouldered him aside.

    "Now look 'ere, Mr. Wither," said Jules, "I tell you straight I'm very far from satisfied. Here's another parson. I don't remember the name of any such person coming before me, and it wouldn't have got past me if it had done, see? It seems to me you've been making appointments behind my back and turning the place into a kind of seminary. And that's a thing I won't stand. Nor will the British people."

    "I know. I know," said Wither. "I understand your feelings exactly. I am eager and waiting to explain the situation to you. In the meantime, perhaps, as Dr. Ambrosius seems slightly overcome and the dressing-bell has just sounded . . . oh, I beg your pardon. This is Dr. Ambrosius."

    The tramp, to whom the real magician had recently turned, was now risen from his chair, and approaching Jules, held out his hand sulkily. Dr. Ambrosius, looking over Jules's shoulder and grinning in an inexplicable fashion, seized it and shook it, as if absent-mindedly, some ten or fifteen times. His breath, Jules noticed, was strong and his grip horny. He was not liking Dr. Ambrosius.

    CHAPTER SIXTEEN

    BANQUET AT BELBURY

    IT was with great pleasure that Mark found himself once more dressing for dinner. He got a seat with Filostrato on his right and an inconspicuous newcomer on his left. Even Filostrato seemed human compared with the two initiates, and to the newcomer his heart positively warmed. He noticed with surprise the tramp sitting at the high table between Jules and Wither, but did not often look in that direction, for the tramp, catching his eye, had imprudently raised his glass and winked at him. The strange priest stood patiently behind the tramp's chair. Nothing of importance happened until the King's health had been drunk and Jules rose to make his speech.

    For the first few minutes anyone glancing down the long tables would have seen what we always see on such occasions : the placid faces of bons viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate, the patient faces of diners who had learned how to pursue their own thoughts while attending just enough to respond wherever a laugh or a rumble of assent was obligatory, the fidgety faces of young men unappreciative of port and hungry for tobacco, the over-elaborate attention on the powdered faces of women who knew their duty to society. But if you had gone on looking down the tables you would presently have seen a change. You would have seen face after face look up and turn in the direction of the speaker. You would have seen first curiosity, then fixed attention, then incredulity. Finally, you would have noticed that the room was utterly silent, without a cough or a creak, that every eye was fixed on Jules, and soon every mouth opened in something between fascination and horror.

    To different members of the audience the change came differently. To Frost it began at the moment when he heard Jules end a sentence with the words "as gross an anachronism as to trust to calvary for salvation in modern war". Cavalry, thought Frost. Why couldn't the fool mind what he was saying. Perhaps-but hallo! what was this? Jules seemed to be saying that the future density of mankind depended on the implosion of the horses of Nature. "He's drunk," thought Frost. Then, crystal clear in articulation, beyond all possibility of mistake, came "The madrigore of verjuice must be talthibianised."

    Wither was slower to notice what was happening. He had never expected the speech to have any meaning as a whole, and for a long time the familiar catchwords rolled on in a manner which did not disturb the expectation of his ear. Then he thought: "Come! That's going too far. Even they must see that you can't talk about accepting the challenge of the past by throwing down the gauntlet of the future." He looked cautiously down the room. All was well. But it wouldn't be if Jules didn't sit down pretty soon. In that last sentence there were surely words he didn't know. What the deuce did he mean by aholibate? He looked down the room again. They were attending too much, always a bad sign. Then came the sentence, "The surrogates esemplanted in a continual of porous variations."

    Mark did not at first attend to the speech at all. Once or twice some phrase made him want to smile. What first awoke him to the real situation was the behaviour of those who sat near him. He was aware of their increasing stillness. He noticed that everyone except himself had begun to attend. He looked up and saw their faces. And then first he really listened. "We shall not," Jules was saying, '' we shall not till we can secure the erebation of all pros-tundiary initems." He looked round again. Obviously it was not he who was mad -they had all heard the gibberish. Except possibly the tramp, who looked as solemn as a judge. He had never heard a speech from one of these real toffs before, and would have been disappointed if he could understand it. Nor had he ever before drunk vintage port, and though he did not much like the taste, he had been working away like a man.

    Wither had not forgotten that there were reporters present. That in itself did not matter much. If anything unsuitable appeared in to-morrow's paper, it would be child's play for him to say that the reporters were drunk or mad and break them. On the other hand, he might let the story pass. Jules was a nuisance, and this might be as good an opportunity as any other for ending his career. But this was not the immediate question. Wither was wondering whether he should wait till Jules sat down or whether he should rise and interrupt him with a few judicious words. He did not want a scene. Glancing at his watch, he decided to wait two minutes more. Almost as he did so he knew that he had misjudged it. An intolerable falsetto laugh rang out; some fool of a woman had got hysterics. Immediately Wither touched Jules on the arm and rose.

    "Eh? Blotcher bulldoo?" muttered Jules. But Wither, laying his hand on the little man's shoulder, quietly but with all his weight, forced him into a sitting position. Then Wither cleared his throat. He knew how to do that so that every eye in the room turned immediately to look at him. The woman stopped screaming Wither looked down the room for a second or two in silence, feeling his grip on the audience. He saw that he already had them in hand. There would be no more hysterics. Then he began to speak.

    They ought to have all looked more and more comfortable as he proceeded; and there ought soon to have been murmurs of grave regret for the tragedy which they had just witnessed. That was what Wither expected. What he actually saw bewildered him. The same too attentive silence which had prevailed during Jules's speech had returned. The woman began to laugh again-or no, this time it was two women. Cosser bolted from the room.

    The Deputy Director could not understand this, forto him his own voice seemed to be uttering the speech he had resolved to make. But the audience heard him saying, "Tidies and fulgemen-I sheel foor that we all-er-most steeply rebut the defensible, though, I trust, lavatory, aspasia which gleams to have selected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would-ah-be shark, very shark, from anyone's debenture . . ."

    The woman who had laughed rose hastily from her chair. The man next to her heard her murmur, "Vood wooloo." He took in the meaningless syllables and her unnatural expression at one moment. Both for some reason infuriated him. He rose to help her to move back her chair with one of those gestures of savage politeness which often, in modern society, serve instead of blows. He wrenched the chair, in fact, out of her hand. She screamed, tripped, and fell. The man on the other side of her saw the first man's expression of fury. "Bot are you blammit?" he roared, leaning towards him. Four or five people in that part of the room were now up. They were shouting. There was movement elsewhere. Several men were making for the door. "Bundlemen, bundlemen," said Wither sternly, in a much louder voice.

    He was not even heard. At least twenty people present were at that very moment attempting to do the same thing. To each of them it seemed plain that things were just at that stage when a word or so of plain sense, spoken in a new voice, would restore the whole room to sanity. As a result fresh gibberish in a great variety of tones rang out from several places at once. Frost was the only one of the leaders who attempted to say nothing. Instead he pencilled a few words on a slip of paper, beckoned to a servant, and made him understand by signs that it was to be given to Miss Hardcastle.

    By the time the message was put into her hands the clamour was universal. Miss Hardcastle smoothed out the paper and stooped her head to read. The message ran: Blunt frippers intantly to pointed bdeluroid. Pwgent. Cost.

    Miss Hardcastle had known before she got the message that she was three parts drunk. She had expected and intended to be so: she knew that later on in the evening she would go down to the cells and do things. There was a new prisoner there-a little fluffy girl of the kind the Fairy enjoyed-with whom she could pass an agreeable hour. The tumult of gibberish did not alarm her: she found it exciting. Apparently Frost wanted her to take some action. She decided that she would. She rose and walked the whole length of the room to the door, locked it, put the key in her pocket, and then turned to survey the company. She noticed for the first time that neither the supposed Merlin nor the Basque priest were anywhere to be seen. Wither and Jules, both on their feet, were struggling with each other. She set out towards them.

    So many people had now risen that it took her along time to reach them. All semblance of a dinner-party had disappeared: it was more like the scene at a London terminus on a bank holiday. Everyone was trying to restore order, but everyone was unintelligible, and everyone, in the effort to be understood, was talking louder and louder. She shouted several times herself. She even fought a good deal before she reached her goal.

    There came an ear-splitting noise and after that, at last, a few seconds of dead silence. Mark noticed first that Jules had been killed: only secondly that Miss Hardcastle had shot him. After that it was difficult to be sure what happened. The stampede and the shouting may have concealed a dozen reasonable plans for disarming the murderess, but it was impossible to concert them. She fired again and again. It was the smell more than anything else which recalled the scene to Mark in later life: the smell of the shooting mixed with the sticky compound smell of blood and port and Madeira.

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