The Black Fox A Novel Of The Seventies

BOOK: The Black Fox A Novel Of The Seventies
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Copyright, 1951, by Gerald Heard Printed in the United States of America

All rights in this book are reserved. No part of the book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper & Brothers, 49 East ssrd Street, New York 16, N, Y.


To J.M.B.

All the characters in this story are imaginary, save that of a British Prime Minister, dead nearly seventy years ago. Even the Islamic Itinerist is not historical, being only an ad hoc author who covers with equal enterprise hut slightly different outlook the journeys of the famous Abu-Abdallah Mohammed, surnamed ibn-Eatuta.

The Black Fox



"Yes, My Lord, I thought I might make a little draught without adding to my own temperature."

"A nice art on a night like this!"

'Well, the air in my house seemed to have become another element or, shall I say, a gas non-luminous but of sufficient heat that one is surprised that it does not glow."

"A Miltonic notion of hell! But, really, I do not recall ever experiencing a more suffocating night. And were we not of what friend Trollope calls The Cloth, I'd wager that the atmosphere in my Palace is still more dense than that in your residence. You know what a wag once said of this environment— The city is the sink of the countryside, the Close of the city and the Palace of the Close."

'We are certain to have a storm tonight?" queried the Canon.

The answer came in a sudden flicker on the blackness. The two speakers were silent listening. They even stopped their slow promenade. They had to wait for a considerable time, and then their ears in the stillness only just caught the growling confirmation that the flicker had been the reflection of a flash.

'Well, that shows." the Bishop's voice continued, "that it is still under the horizon. We shall have no relief for hours. I certainly shall not insult sleep by lying down under my leaden roof and asking it to accompany me. A turn or two here, and then, perhaps, if one sits somewhere in the Close a little rest may be won even if slumber cannot be wooed."

"Your prescription is so sound, may I follow you in your dispensing of it?"

Evidently assent was given—at least leave was not refused. For the two pairs of feet could be heard in slow step pacing out the flag-stones. The dark was not absolute for somewhere, outside the Cathedral Close gate, the faint light of street lamps made the upper stories of the surrounding houses appear like an almost transparent overpainting of grey against the sky's dense black. The two walkers could just tell that they were on the pavement and be aware of the form of the other looming alongside. It was probably this protective darkness, this intimacy and yet seclusion, even from each other, that gave the second speaker a certain boldness. They had made hardly more than half-a-dozen of their slow turns, when the Canon remarked,

'The Archdeacon's indisposition seems to have proved stubborn?"

The curious condition of the night—giving, as it did, a double sense: of being alone, out in unobserved space and at the same time closeted in an intimate privacy—had evidently much the same effect on Bishop as on Canon. Bishop Bendwell was known to be what the Book of Common Prayer likes to call—it is one of its highest terms of commendation—"a discreet man." He knew how to mind his own business and to see that others respected that frontier. But now it seemed to him that there was no reason for not sharing what the Doctor had told him that noon. Accustomed to sleep well, to use most of the night for that useful if mysterious exercise and able to forget his dreams the moment he woke, such a man the more capable he is in the day, the more he should guard himself when awake in the night. For the night can enforce its rules even on those who feel that by wakeful watchfulness they can remain creatures only subject to the laws and reasons of the day.

"All too stubborn, I fear," he replied, And when the other asked, more definitely, "I trust his condition does not give rise to any alarm?" he repeated verbatim the Doctor's verdict, "He may linger for a couple of months—he might still be alive at Advent—but that would be the limit."

"Poor man, poor man." Canon Simpkins' voice even in the day-time would not be expected to show more than courtesy condolence. The Archdeacon was almost overfull of years. There can't be preferment without predeceasement and after all there is heaven. Even purgatory, thought the Canon, has been conveniently removed from the spiritual prospect of Protestants. So there was not the slightest reason for not wishing the failing Archdeacon Travers bon voyage. Archdeacon Travers had enjoyed, even to that fourscore years which the Psalmist thought could only be "labour and sorrow," a nice taste for Greek, a fine library to sustain that taste, a considerable ear for music and an equally sober appreciation of port. Life had done him well at its huge and variously garnished board. He had had a good place. And most people felt that he had given as good as he got. "A thoroughly nice man," nice people had been saying about him for close on sixty years. They found little else to say—neither had even the not thoroughly nice. Yes, things had cancelled out quite well, and, well—everyone now felt, without impatience but with no wish for delay, that a thoroughly quiet death would be nicely in keeping with such a life.

The instep pairs of feet beat out another couple of turns before the Canon's voice closed the Travers' career with "A thoroughly nice man." The Bishop antiphoned and die Canon felt the chance had now come for the more intimate condolence that could lead to further confidence.

"The real burden falls on you. These choices must indeed be part of your heavy burden that you would most gladly lay aside!"

It was a bold thing to say, of course, but the unique conditions of the night seemed heaven sent. They also made his hearer's defences relax. Few people really object to being sympathized with. But, as with flattery, the object of it must be sure that he is not being fooled.

"There will be time to think it over," the Bishop replied warily. "Of course the Doctor may be right—perhaps we should presume it. But, after all, with men who have lived long and quietly, death seems to approach them with an equal patience. There's an old country saying 'Long in living, long in dying.' Here, in the Close, we have still another example of that—the Dean. He certainly isn't dying, but like a clear evening sun he is declining. 'Sufficient unto the day...." He paused and then added, "But, you are right, these are the real burdens of high office."

"And," the voice beside him added, "with the highest quality of conscientiousness, the longer the choice has to be considered really the greater the strain."

The "True" with which this was allowed encouraged the Canon to venture a further test, "Especially when so many people will expect an appointment tihat one with really intimate knowledge might feel compelled to disappoint."

The footsteps became slower, then paused. The Bishop's dim large form was bent back. Apparently he was looking up at the wall of the house that skirted the footpath on which they were walking. "You are right," he finally conceded, having evidently decided to go on with the issue. His voice sank, "I must bind you to the strictest confidence. I have long suspected that you realized the situation which was bound to arise, sooner or later." He paused again. "Everyone will expect me to appoint Canon

Throcton. I had not intended to raise the matter with you, but the Doctor's news today and our meeting here tonight.... Well, I need not wish to disguise from you that only two people are, as is said, in the running for the post—the scholar outside whose house we are now...and yourself. I need hardly say that you must realize how important it is that no one should suspect that we have even discussed the issue. It must reach no other ears!"

"I assure you it will not," Canon Simpkins gave his word with solemn and indeed grateful expectancy, and certainly with every reason for keeping it. But he was answering for more than he could command or know. The wall, under whose side they walked, was tall and blind. None of the windows of this Canon-Residentiary house gave onto this quiet footpath that linked up one part of the Close with another. But not all of this high unbroken wall was that of the house itself. The house wall had been carried on to make, without break, the wall of the house's garden. Furthermore, on that dark, suffocating night another of the Cathedral body had not been able to sleep. He was sitting silent in his garden without a light, sitting precisely on the opposite side of this high wall. In the stillness and with the smooth stone to carry every sound, he coud hear the conversation as clearly as the two speakers heard each other. Like that ancient sound-trap, 'The Ear of Dionysius," that prison quarry in which the Syra-cusan tyrant kept his prisoners so that, overhearing their words, he might have evidence to execute them, these high garden walls conducted every word spoken in the lane without, to anyone sitting within.

"Canon Throcton." the Bishop continued with the quiet relief with which we break a long-kept self-confidence, "is a scholar of which any Chapter might well be proud. . . ." The Canon beside the Bishop cleared his throat with a slight expectancy making at the same time a conventional assent. The Canon the other side of the wall smiled in the dark a smile that if he had seen it in a mirror might have caused him, as well as his unsuspecting colleagues, some little misgiving.

"But even scholarship can be excessive and now-a-days office can no more go to the pure researcher than to the purest of blue blood. And yet, and yet he will be expected to be the next Archdeacon. I wish people realized how litde power the man at the top has. Frankly I would like you for the post. Social conscience and practical administrative capacity are what are needed to-day. But I don't know that we really can go against what is, you might say, 'in the succession.' I trust that if the social conditions of the diocese make it advisable for me to fall in with what is expected you will understand it is due to my wish to meet everyone's wishes and not to override general feeling."

There was a pause; the two men had stopped walking. The third on the other side of the wall had risen, the better to catch every word as it came over. Obviously Canon Simpkins felt the moment had come when he must not accept defeat with victory still in the balance. ,His voice when he spoke was steady, reasonable, detached.

"I know you will realize how difficult it is to be frank when oneself is a party involved. But now you have spoken to me I feel in honour bound to tell you that, whether or no you should feel it wise to choose me for the post, Canon Throcton is not the man who could be to you with the diocese what an Archdeacon should be to his Bishop, his sheep-dog. I am not referring to his perhaps excessive scholarship. Of that it might well be said I am no judge. What I do know is that he disturbs many people's convictions, I must bear witness to the fact that he is not orthodox. This is not the time, My Lord, as you know, to play fast and loose with principles. As I have said, I am no scholar but I know my way in the theology of our Church and to that I am unwaveringly loyal."

"Of course Anglicanism being the via media does allow of a certain latitude." The Bishop was speaking in almost a questioning voice. He had often escaped from such issues by pleading that he was too busy for controversy.

"And no one would support that more than myself, than ourselves if I may say so," Canon Simpkins answered. "But you know Canon Throcton's speciality?"

"Hebrew, of course."

"And Arabic—Indeed one might say that the Hebrew was merely a bridge to the Arabic. He is, as Aquinas would have said, a better Arabian than' a Christian."

There was another and even longer pause. Then the Bishop's voice said slowly but with perhaps a shadow of relief in it, "I think we must pursue this further. This is an aspect to which I see I have not given sufficient weight. Come, let's go down and sit by the Cathedral lawn. Out in the open there may be a breath more air. This wall seems positively to absorb what little air there is, as pumice soaks water."

"Certainly, certainly. As I was saying, considerably more of an Arabian than a Christian." And the feet moved off to the silence of the lawn.

At the other side of the wall the standing figure whispered to itself, "More of an Arabian than a Christian! Well, if that is Christianity thank God I am!" Moslem or Christian might, however, have felt a doubt as to what God had been addressed, when a moment after the same whisper continued, "If ever I forgive that cunning snake ... if ever I get a chance. . . ." But at that moment there came from the horizon a sudden flicker like a signal. He paused, and while waiting, there came a roll of thunder sufficiently dramatic that with a shame-faced smile he made for the house. When, however, he had reached his study and turned up the blue point of the gas jet till the room was lit, sleep still appeared out of the question. True the air was already cooler but the storm, which was already driving a wind before it, had taken over from the stagnant air the task of sleep-banisher.

'Til read." he remarked to himself. "Thunder won't distract me. Better keep up my Arabic. They say I'm nothing but a Saracen, Very well it's clear I can hope for no preferment in the Church. So I'd better keep up my linguistic studies. Perhaps one of the universities might yet give me a Chair."

He looked along his densely populated shelves. The Sufis? Junaid, al-Ghazali, Rumi? They were the best and the least orthodox! "It's too late, though, for even the most poetic and least dogmatic of theologians. Ah," his eye had lit on The Travels of Ibn-Barnuna. "That's the book to calm the mind. The blind anger of the elements, the equally stupid malice of man, he can take one away from both. A man who globe-trotted half a millennia ago through cities that are now dust heaps; and adventures that are now only exciting in his ruminative prose, yes that's my medicine."

Like most highly trained linguists in a little known tongue Canon Throcton was a deliberate self-talker. The reader was soon engrossed. As the storm rose above, all its distractive power was spent in vain, at least in this room. Indeed as it reached its peak of violence, so that through the curtains came flashes bright enough to compete with the gas-light, the Canon seemed to become roused from easy distractive reading to real study. He reached out to his desk, took a pencil and jotted down some page notes. At last, as the sudden glares and roars grew more distant, the reader rose, stretched himself, more like one who has been asleep than in vigil, put away the volume, lit a candle and left for bed.

BOOK: The Black Fox A Novel Of The Seventies
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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