Authors: Geoffrey Household
Tags: #Thriller & Suspense
‘Threw me out, Piers! Quite right too! My view of eternity was too far from the Book of Revelations.’
‘But what are you doing in this nest of reincarnationists when you are an earnest Christian?’ I asked.
‘I search, old boy. Look on me as a wandering friar! If Simeon chooses to believe that he is training to be a human god, I don’t argue. At bottom he and his disciples long for ways of life that have been lost. No harm in that – I do myself. Started as a child. Something in me is still a British Roman of the age of Arthur, watching Christianity and civilisation collapse around him.’
I could understand that. Brought up on those rich and gentle hills, surrounded by the shards of Roman villas and travelling still by Roman roads, an obsession with the farming, the fighting and the decaying towns at the end of the Empire was natural enough.
‘And you think that collapse will come again?’
‘If it is the will of God. All I feel is great sympathy with the past, which might be memory.’
As bad as the rest of them, I thought. He’s going to tell me that he rode with Arthur’s cavalry which smashed the Saxons at Badon and became – though no one knows why – a legend.
‘And what were you?’
‘I am. That’s all. No beginnings, no ends. After death one is present both in past and future. Sometimes in life too!’
A bold and compassionate man he turned out to be, but at that first intimate chat with him I feared he was too preoccupied with the violence of his former profession and more likely to have been a carrion crow than a proconsul. He had no patience with the druidical drop-outs who showed such exaggerated respect for Marrin.
‘Druids! Pah!’ he snorted. ‘You say you’ve seen his golden chalice. What do you think of it?’
‘Blasphemy – that’s what I think of it! Some of those chaps believe that Simeon has remade the Grail!’
I couldn’t at first see what he meant. If the Grail ever existed, it couldn’t be remade. But yes, he said, it could. It was the holiest symbol of Christianity after the Cross. Its spiritual meaning was eternal. Its physical form could be fashioned again and again.
‘I suspect those fellows use it in vile heathen rites,’ he exclaimed.
My Arthurian major was of course tempted to dream of Marrin’s cauldron as the Grail, but it seemed to me that his logic was just as fantastic. If the Grail was an eternal symbol of human longing, the heathen could benefit from its power as well as anyone else. For the first time it occurred to me – then only as a flight of fancy – that the cauldron could be older than the traditional Grail and the memory of it perhaps the origin of the myth. In that case Marrin had not made it, but found it.
I stayed on at Broom Lodge. My interest was not only in subsistence agriculture and monastic industry. I dislike writing of the other interest, for details would be in the worst taste if they became public. But this confession is for the police, should it ever be necessary for me to defend myself. Otherwise it will be seen only by the red squirrel which has discovered me and suspects that I turn over the white leaves of my notebook to look for nuts. He at least will forgive me if I show my delight in love under the oaks.
I think that other guests at Broom Lodge must have been intimidated by the abbess or in a hurry to get away or, like the major, too perplexed by the past in the present and the future in the past. I am not, I know, particularly attractive to women. I have a narrow, thin-lipped, dark face and a lean body hardened by travel in search of evidence which archaeologists are too busy with tombs and temples to discover. I have also a lean mind which fails to notice birthdays, moods, hair and other surface femininities when deeply engaged in what has been called dream statistics: a fair description though intended to hurt. So I was surprised to notice – some things I do notice – that Elsa was unmistakably trying to draw attention to herself and, like an awkward young girl, interrupting conversations.
‘You must come and see the mines,’ she said to me on the third afternoon.
The main collieries of the Forest are abandoned, leaving remarkably little industrial mess behind. The seams were rich and there was no gas but, as the shafts deepened, the costs and difficulties of pumping out the water became prohibitive. The shape of the Forest is an irregular crater, not at all obvious to the eye among sharply contoured wooden hillocks but pulling into itself any stream on its way to the Severn.
Free mines, however, are still worked, and anywhere in a clearing you may come upon a syndicate of two or three exploiting their shallow shaft with pick, shovel and a little tramway to the surface. Dells and hollows which seem a pleasant freak of nature were once mines, some of them worked by Celts and Romans for iron, before it was discovered that the black rock close to the surface would burn.
I had thought it was an abandoned pit which Elsa wanted me to see; but, as we walked along the green bridle path into the heart of the Forest, chatting of nothing and aware of everything, she in that attractive black robe hanging prettily straight from the shoulder and chastely outlining high breasts and long legs, she turned aside several times to show me these hidden depressions where the bracken gave way to wild flowers and coarse grass and glimpses of bare rock. At last she settled down in one of these pastoral hollows, a dancing ground for nymphs.
‘I come here when I am tired of that Broom Lodge,’ she said, patting the slope of grass as an invitation to join her.
I was surprised. I had taken her to be as whole-hearted an enthusiast as her uncle. I remarked cautiously that perhaps it was all a bit too solemn.
‘There hasn’t been an Elsa before and there won’t be an Elsa again,’ she exclaimed.
To this petulance I answered boldly that for her very individual loveliness it could be true.
‘You know perfectly well what I meant!’
‘So do you – what
‘Am I “maternal”?’ She put the word in inverted commas.
‘I don’t know. If you don’t feel maternal you play it very well.’
She did. There were of course no servants at Broom Lodge. Everything was done by the colonists themselves according to their abilities; for example, those who could cook took turns at it. But somebody had to keep an eye on the housekeeping and general organisation, and that was Elsa’s job.
‘Of course I do. They all trust me, and Simeon has no time for little things. He has done so much. We were very poor to start with.’ She went on to say that I should not misunderstand her. She loved the commune and believed it was the right way to live.
‘But the religion?’ I suggested.
‘Well, why should I spoil it for them? But my body is
an illusion, damn it!’
Again the touch of little girl. I waited for more.
‘And I’m too tall for them.’
Members of the commune were of average height, but she and her uncle – Elsa nearly six foot and he rather more – seemed to tower over them. That effect was due to their air of kindly authority rather than the slight differences of inches.
With a sudden movement she uncoiled and got up. I did so, too, but less gracefully. When we stood facing each other, her grey eyes were on a level with mine. It was impossible to look over them and I did not want to look away from them. As four eyes so ignored the space between them, there might as well be none. I pulled her to me and kissed her. Her response showed that it was what she expected. She may have persuaded herself that standing up she was less committed.
‘They are all … Oh, for them I might come from another world!’ she exclaimed.
‘Sit down and tell me about it.’
‘I shan’t tell you about it. It’s just that I hate it. I feel they think it’s wrong to touch me.’
Myself, I felt it was a sin not to. Her voice and expression implied that ‘they’ didn’t entirely resist temptation but then snatched hands back from the fire so that affairs tended to be exasperating and awkward. She was now sitting close to me and, her head dreamily tilted back, offered her mouth again. She made no effort to stop that severe robe slipping away and then was tremulous but without protest as kisses wandered far and wide until both of us were overwhelmed by that unforgettable demand which still falls short of love but is far more beautiful than crude passion.
‘That was rape,’ she whispered later, with pretended indignation.
Her face was turned away, but one arm was flung out asking to be adored. Of all the erogenous zones a cool, slender arm is to me the most alluring, for it is so lightly joined to all the rest that it seems to be in control of its own movements and has its own personality. I raped that too – in reality now, for I do not think it had experienced such desire before. Its owner was jealous. This time she was surprised at the response of her body, that illusion, and clung to me as if I were life itself.
‘How old do you think I am?’ she asked.
‘In your twenties somewhere.’
To be honest I would have put her in her early thirties and at the very prime of her authority and beauty.
‘I am twenty-two.’
‘And you are really Simeon’s niece?’
‘Of course I am.’
She told me how it had all started when she had left school and had begun a course of hotel management. Both her parents had died young and she lived with her grandmother, a vaguely kind woman occupied with good works and giving little companionship. In that dull home life the visits of Uncle Simeon had been the only bright spots for her. He was always a mysterious and stimulating character earning his living as a laboratory technician and spending his evenings with what he called the Fellowship. Several times he had taken her with him to their meetings in a barren little hall. Their principles had been easy enough to understand but quite unbelievable for a girl bursting to accept with joy whatever the present life was about to offer. He had given her books to read and she had dutifully read them, though rejecting all the arguments after the first chapter. She avoided telling him so outright, since she was grateful for his interest in her.
Broom Lodge had been left to the Fellowship by one of its corresponding members, a retired clergyman who had lived there for years in an atmosphere of heresy and squalor which bothered nobody but himself. His will proposed that it should be used as a country home for the faithful – a thoroughly impractical legacy since none of them could find the money to repair and maintain the place or to restore some value to the neglected land. Simeon, however, had jumped at the opportunity and with fire and faith had persuaded half a dozen of the Fellowship not to sell it but to try their hands at a working commune where all believers would be welcome. Elsa of course must come along. She finished half her course and joined them.
It was still hell, she said, when she arrived there, and if it had not been that she fell in love with the Forest and was flattered to know herself of real service to these industrious innocents – all of whom were double her age or near it – she would have cleared out. Simeon himself had been tireless, she said. The two local skills by which a little money might be made were mining and salmon fishing. Broom Lodge had no rights to mine, but anyone was free to catch salmon in the estuary away from the bank. The expertise of the few remaining professionals with their lave nets, weirs and stopping boats could never be acquired, so Simeon decided to try the unprecedented technique of skin-diving, one of his many pseudo-scientific accomplishments, half mystical, half very real!
‘In the Severn, my God?’ I exclaimed.
‘Oh, he says it’s quite safe once you know the channels and the tides. He often does it still, but at night.’
‘Has he ever caught anything?’
‘Nothing much. But he once speared a dolphin – the one you saw in his laboratory.’
The change in Broom Lodge was a year old. Along with the builders and the tractors came the workshops and recruiting of more of the faithful. Simeon had had a big win on the football pools and devoted the lot to his commune. The new intake of devout colonists had to be impressed by more than height and competence, and that was why Elsa had invented a uniform for herself, halfway between a parlourmaid and a nun. It seemed so absurd to flaunt colour at them when all they wanted – usually – was a mother figure.
We agreed that no one must suspect our affair. Uncle Simeon, she thought, might be sympathetic but would not approve of so swift an attachment to a stranger. As for the colonists, whatever image they had of her – abbess, housekeeper or serene, maternal beauty – would be severely dented.
Enough of Elsa for the moment – though I can never have enough. We returned in time for the hour of meditation, which out of courtesy to my hosts I attended. For me meditation is more peaceful and productive after half a litre of claret and a square meal, but on this occasion I had plenty to meditate about: whether I could save myself from falling desperately in love with Elsa and how much to believe of the story of the win on the pools. It neatly accounted for the comfort of Broom Lodge, which had puzzled me, as well as for the unproductive farming and the impossibility of any large profits on Marrin’s buying and selling of gold; all the same, he was not the sort of character to study football results and to waste time and money on a weekly gamble. Of course he might have done it once only and produced a winning line by following some incredibly effective cabalistic formula, but a pious and profitable burglary for the sake of the commune was far more likely.
By the time the party broke up with a monotonous chant my thoughts had switched to salmon fishing, Marrin’s early and wildly imaginative scheme to raise some cash. Since I myself am a competent skin-diver, I was eager to talk to him about the risks of the Severn Sea and the possibilities of underwater exploration.
First I engaged the major in conversation on the founding of the colony, so that there could be no reason to suspect Elsa of giving the story away. He avoided any discussion of the win on the pools, saying that there were many unexpected ways in which the spiritually minded could be rewarded. When I suggested that the acquisition of worldly wealth was usually supposed to distract the Soul from the Way, he did not agree. Poverty was desirable for the monk but not for the monastery. This led quite naturally to the early skin-diving for profit. Later on, the major said, it had become a rite. Marrin’s secret swimming with the fish was symbolic of the unity of life.