Authors: Geoffrey Household
Tags: #Thriller & Suspense
‘Ah! Ancient agriculture, what!’ the major exclaimed. ‘Just the man for you, Simeon! Now, Mr Colet, tell us how the Egyptians could afford to take such a mass of labour off the land to build pyramids and still feed the people. What?’
Such an invitation to talk inevitably made me commit the crime of lecturing at dinner. I addressed myself mostly to Elsa, and not only from curiosity. When she was interested her face lit up and I realised for the first time that she was extremely attractive. As a concession to the formality of the evening meal she had let loose the ash-blonde hair which, when I first saw her, had been coiled in a severe bun.
So I replied that the major was right in supposing that one of my subjects was subsistence agriculture. For example, I could understand how such a commune as Broom Lodge just managed to feed its colonists, but I should be fascinated to learn how it produced surplus value, as it obviously did.
‘I will show you round tomorrow, Mr Colet,’ Marrin said.
The subject was promptly dropped. Elsa broke the respectful silence by asking about Roman ports on the Severn. I explained that on the east bank there were apparently none. If one were found it might suggest new aspects of the imperial economy: transport of slaves and rations for example. The ports on the west bank represented straightforward capitalism – mining of iron in the Forest of Dean and direct shipment to the Continent.
‘Some say gold, too,’ the major remarked. He bent forward across Marrin as if eagerly awaiting a reply.
‘A tradition with no truth in it,’ Marrin interrupted. ‘Geologically it is most unlikely. But that hasn’t stopped prospectors searching for it from time to time.’
I look back now at that first mention of gold. The thread of gold runs through the mysterious tapestry of Broom Lodge. I see it again and again appearing on the surface but still forming no recognisable or believable design.
My first impression of the colonists was that they were a hard-working bunch, starry-eyed or not, who knew the figures for profit and loss on their various enterprises but seemed vague about those for the whole commune. Pigs were the mainstay. Broom Lodge had ancient and extensive rights of common in the Forest, and the pigs were free to wander and stuff themselves with acorns in season. Superior flavour had won the colonists a London market for the products of the smoke-house. They were also breeding back to the wild boar since there was a demand, mostly from the Continent, for its meat.
However, the pigs, a flock of sheep – also benefiting from common rights – and a hundred acres of arable could not possibly give a return to keep some thirty men and women living in civilised comfort. By the time I was off to an early bed it was obvious to me that Simeon Marrin was subsidising the colony from income or capital. Why? The propagation of his gospel, whatever it was, had to be the answer.
In the morning, walking round the estate with him, I saw that his hospitality must be even more generous than I had supposed. The commune turned out to be a training centre, and the training was nothing like so efficient as the farming. We started off in the wheelwright’s shop, where two married couples were hard at work on wagon wheels and more delicate jobs for dog-carts and buggies. They must have had some practical lessons elsewhere but now were following drawings and diagrams. A finished wheel, though smartly painted and with professional slender spokes, was to my eyes very slightly oval.
The next call was at the smithy. Four of the bald men were forging simple tools and wrought iron. I looked more closely at them and saw that they were tonsured. Then we came to a carpenter’s shop with a primitive lathe worked by pedals. There, two colonists were also tonsured, and still another was the young gardener who had received me on arrival, making seven in all.
Last was a sailmaker’s loft where three women were stitching away. I was not able to judge their mastery of the craft, but I couldn’t help remarking that the Severn seemed the last place for a carefree yachting holiday.
‘Man sets out upon great waters, Mr Colet,’ Marrin said in priestly tone.
‘But all these things you could buy well under the cost of home production.’
‘It is of course a waste of labour which should be employed on the land; but to be self-supporting is not the only object of my colony.’
My colony. Not our colony. Well, that was what I suspected. He financed Broom Lodge and almost certainly owned it.
‘And the other object?’ I asked.
‘A certain continuity. I feel that as a researcher into the past of mankind you may possibly understand our planning for the future.’
That sounded as if Broom Lodge was more concerned with bodies than souls, and I was prepared to listen. A future in which small communities feed themselves while the silicon chip does the rest is at least worth analysis for fun.
‘Do you, I wonder, agree with us that our civilisation is doomed?’
‘Not in the near future.’
‘Near or far does not matter, for after death there is no more time. And reincarnation, do you believe in that?’
‘I put it among the more improbable possibilities.’
‘But not impossible?’
I replied that nothing was impossible, that our ignorance was complete and had to be.
‘Not complete. All of us here remember something of past lives.’
An ancient and venerated faith. It seemed reasonable cement for holding together a community of believers.
‘Past lives – they always seem to me so suspiciously romantic.’
‘We are aware of that, Mr Colet. The human mind must be allowed its little vanities. What matters is the memory of service, conscious or unconscious. I will give you a hypothetical example from yourself. Let us say that you were a quantity surveyor – as we should now call it – at Tyre. You were able to tell the merchants what it would cost to build the causeway joining the island to the mainland and on your estimate they could base their decision. You remember nothing of it, but your interest in the economy of ancient harbours remains.’
Right up my street! But I doubt if the trade figures for Tyre can even be conjectured. However, it would be an amusing exercise for a wet Sunday afternoon.
It was a brilliant example of what he meant, and I told him so. As intimacy was growing, I ventured to ask him what service he himself remembered.
‘It may have been I who discovered that the gold which oozed from nuggets in the fire could be made to take any shape that the craftsman wished. Or it may be that the liquid gold, easiest of metals, led me to try the smelting of copper and tin. I cannot be sure and it is not important. Our first belief is in reincarnation. Our second is that service to man is what is remembered. Our third is that we must prepare for such service.’
I objected that if, say, an expert in genetic engineering were to be reincarnated with his memory of service, it would be only a nightmare when the technology to use his science didn’t exist.
‘That is why we stick to the most primitive crafts – the wheel, the lathe, the sail and the working of gold.’
That was a craft I had not been shown. I took him to be quite sincere. I now know that he is not only sincere but fanatically possessed. Murder for the sake of religion has never been a problem for the fanatic. Look at Hindu and Mohammedan in India or the bloodthirsty sects of the Middle East or, nearer to our own cultural aberrations, that fellow Jones who fascinated his entire colony in Guyana into committing suicide.
‘You envisage that sooner or later we are bound to return to a neolithic era?’
‘Exactly. As Einstein said, the fourth world war will be fought with stones and clubs. Then it is time for the teachers of agriculture and worship who later are remembered as gods. We are training to be those gods.’
A shattering conception! But given the highly dubious premises, the conclusion follows. I wanted to ask him about the worship, but before I could do so he said very cordially, ‘Stay with us as long as you like. My niece and I will be delighted.’
I thanked him and replied that I would indeed like to see more of their commune.
Both of them had a disturbing charm, disturbing because it defied analysis. Elsa, I found, always wore the black robe when on her many duties in the house. The sweater and slacks in which I had first seen her were for farm and garden.
That afternoon and evening, helping to turn the hay and mixing with the colonists afterwards, I encouraged them to consider me as a possible convert and to talk freely. All the details of their bizarre faith are irrelevant to my narrative. Mostly they seemed fairly orthodox theosophists, speaking of the body as a temporary illusion. Meanwhile, the illusion worked nobly at filling wheelbarrows with unsuitable clay for making bricks.
This core of solid Englishmen and a few women greatly respected Simeon Marrin. The Freedom of the Forest meant to them something more than the ancient rights of free miners and of shepherds who owned flocks but no land. It was as if this outpost of the oaks between the Severn and the Welsh Marches formed for them a spiritual island where the inexorable Wheel – a pleasanter name than the rat-race – forgot to turn, and left body and soul at peace with each other. One of the busy haymakers put it very well. ‘I love the Forest,’ he said. ‘I would like to become a tree.’ I don’t know whether adepts of theosophy consider a tree as a possible stopping place on the way up or down, but now that the trees share my bed in silence and, without eyes, see from their topmost branches moonlight on the shoals of the Severn, I appreciate what he meant.
Besides these honest colonists who found a spiritual peace among the oaks without worrying overmuch about past and future lives, there was this inner circle of tonsured mystics. They had a courteous habit of inclining their heads whenever they met Marrin, and he acknowledged their bows gravely as a high priest among his people. Nobody commented on this, accepting that they had an arcane reason of their own for such respect. I was told that they followed a tradition which descended from the Druids, who also believed in the transmigration of souls. I wish that Roman historians could have told us how the doctrine travelled from the east to the mists of the Atlantic.
After dinner Marrin took me to his own quarters at the back of the western wing, where he had a formal estate office on the ground floor and above it a workshop which was far from formal, approached by open stairs from the office. It was a circular room, contained in a squat but imposing tower, with windows high up in the wall. In the centre was an electric furnace and a long laboratory table with a number of crucibles and all the usual equipment. Cabinets held a range of cream-coloured ceramic pots, each marked with its chemical symbol. I noticed mercury, lead and sulphur. There were skeletons of a large salmon and a small Severn-caught dolphin. A third skeleton, standing on its own pedestal, was of some four-footed long-tailed beast, covered with a carapace. I guessed that it was a species of turtle. The whole display was slightly theatrical. I mentioned that his laboratory resembled an alchemist’s den.
‘I know it does,’ he replied, ‘but that is inevitable when I am experimenting with gold and its alloys. Also, I am studying the development of life in the water and all its implications. The tideway of the Severn has much to offer the mystic, from the lamprey, most primitive of fish, to the leaping, splendid salmon and the muscles of its tail.’
‘And the turtle,’ I asked, ‘if it is one?’
‘Oh, he was put in for fun! Since the place looked like an alchemist’s den, as you called it, I made a proper job of the decorations.’
Much later when I was puzzled by the gold and its origin it occurred to me that there was no better disguise for the alchemist than admitting to a stranger that he amused himself by pretending to be one.
He opened a velvet-lined drawer and showed me some of his work: bracelets, pendants and ash trays like little scallop shells, which were delicate enough for the butt ends of a millionairess. He had a genius for pure form rather than decoration. When I praised his simple and effective taste, he obviously thought that I had chosen the right words and was pleased.
‘Form!’ he said. ‘Yes, form is essential for craftsmanship, but not enough. There must also be inspiration.’
He hesitated and then added almost reluctantly, ‘Mr Colet, I cannot resist showing you what I mean.’
I had noticed that between two of the windows was a short crimson curtain over a curved shelf. He pulled a string which drew back the curtain and exposed a casket of ebony and ivory with both the Cross and the Pentacle – an odd combination – engraved on the door. He drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the casket, revealing a two-handled vessel of gold. I had never seen anything like it, nor could I guess its function. It was too tall for an amphora or bowl and most resembled a cauldron, swelling out from the base and in again to a slight neck above the handles and below the rim. It stood about a foot high, with its smooth womb a little less. The curves of pure gold seemed to provide their own light and were as near perfection as any Chinese masterpiece of jade or porcelain. Since it was well above eye level I could not judge its weight, but felt sure he was justified in claiming to be inspired – certainly by some ancient style.
I had only time to exclaim my admiration before he shut and locked the casket, closing as it were all further comment. I didn’t attempt any. I came down to earth and asked him if he had a market for such pieces.
‘Yes. Every so often I go up to London with my wares and sell them. If buyers do not think them saleable they can always melt them down.’
In that case he could not make a profit after buying his gold, but I gave the question no further thought. Profit was of no importance if he were only training himself and preparing a memory which, according to him, would be preserved from one existence to another. An absurd faith, but no madder than some. At least it was service which was remembered, not the erotic adventures of some oriental princess.
Verging on comedy rather than mystery was the spiritual pilgrimage of Major Matravers-Drummond. Since he was the only other guest, and his room was next door to mine, we were able to relax together at the day’s end with his private bottle of whisky. He was Gloucestershire born and bred, with his home in a valley of the dark line of the Cotswolds which closed the eastern horizon across the river. Retired from the Household Cavalry, he had taken to religion and even entered a seminary to be trained as a parson.