The Seer of Britain

In That Hideous Strength, as throughout the Space Trilogy, C. S. Lewis presents himself as reporting events related to him by Ransom and others. But the novel also reports the private conversations and thoughts of several of the villains, who die before the end of the story. How, then, might Lewis come to hear of these things?

"How is Donne coming?" Mark asked, peering over Jane's shoulder at the papers spread out on her desk.

"Oh, fine. I'm wondering if I should try investigating where he wrote his various poems." Jane had scaled back her thesis on Donne to a detailed bibliography, on the grounds that this was most likely to be useful to other Donne scholars. Besides, after the convulsions of last fall and winter – techno-facism flowering and falling in rural England; the town of Edgestow half blown off the map; her marriage, her life, and her soul turned inside out, shaken, dusted, and put back – it was peacefully pleasant to work on some dull but constructive bit of scholarship.

Pleasant but odd. The world had been turned around and yet, here she was, at home in the same flat, with the same husband, at work on the same subject. Only nothing would ever be truly the same. Thanks be to God.

"Did Donne move about much?" Mark asked.

"Yes, all over Europe and exploring in the Americas, but those bits were before he became known as a poet. Of course, he might have been writing already."

"Maybe you'll turn up something new about it," said Mark, stepping away to the kitchen to take the kettle off. It was also pleasant that he was home for tea. He was, if anything, busier than last year, at work on the academic reconstruction of Bragdon College, but he was now home far more than last year. Very pleasant.

The whistle of the kettle stopped just as the knock came at the door. Opening, Jane saw a man in a wheelchair. He was thin but roundfaced, very pale, the palor accentuated by his dark suit. His eyes were sunken and he looked generally unwell, though he was smiling.

His attendants were smiling, too. Both wore the white uniforms of hospital orderlies, of magnificent brightness and crispness. Both were young and pleasant-faced, grinning as if they were delivering Christmas presents rather than an invalid. It was apparently one of them who had knocked for him.

"Mrs. Studdock?" he asked. "My name is Walter Bergamot. May I come in? It's about Logres." His voice was reedy and unsteady, with a cockney accent.

Jane's thoughts whirled. Was this some new ally? Or might it be the NICE rising again? Retaliating? Or some new tool of its masters? But there was nothing menacing or discordant about this man or the orderlies. She got the feeling the young men in white were pleased at having got Mr. Bergamot as far along as he was – that he was coming along nicely now. She was learning to trust her intuitions in such things. "Certainly," she said. "Come in. Would you two gentlemen–?" she began.

"We'll wait out here," said one of the orderlies. The other helped Bergamot up and, as he tottered through the door, gave Jane a smile and a salute, then shut the door. Jane motioned for Bergamot to sit in the chair beside her desk, the nearest to him. He sank into it heavily. "Thank you," he sighed.

Jane was about to say, "Let me get my husband," when he said, abruptly, "I am the Seer of Britain. Just as you are the Seer of Logres. I wanted to meet with you before I went."

"Seer?" she echoed, flummoxed. "What do you mean? Where are you going?"

"I'm ... not sure. And I don't know if I should tell you my guesses. But those two chaps out there will take good care of me. I want to give you what information I can, before I go. And I wanted to meet with you because I've studied you so much. Because, as I said, I am the Seer of Britain, though I didn't call myself that until recently. But I'm a clairvoyant, a visionary, like you. I worked for the other side."

"The NICE?" Jane's apprehensions began to return. Where was Mark?

"Yes. But not now. Not for some while. Please, don't be nervous. I'm glad they're all gone. I just want to tell you what I can, then go."

Jane sat blinking for a moment. "Very well," she said. "It's obvious you've gone to some trouble to come here. Thank you." She picked up a notebook and a pencil, trying to look businesslike – trying to look like Dr. Ironwood, truth be told, though she was sure she did not. "Please go on."

"Well, I think it would be simplest for me to just tell you my story as it happened."

* * *

I had an office job before the War. It wouldn't interest you. It didn't really interest me. I was a private in the War. That was when the first really strange thing – the first visionary or "seerly" thing – happened to me: my brother died in France, on the battlefield. I dreamed it. I was working at a desk and I suddenly fell into a daydream. I believe I was thinking of home, as it was before the War. But, very quickly, I was looking at my brother, in uniform, lying dead on a muddy field. I woke up – if you want to call it waking – with a start. I tried to tell myself it was just an unpleasant bit of dream, brought on by worry. But four days later, we learned he had died right then.

A few months later, I was in France myself. I still had a desk job, though it wasn't nearly as safe as the one back in England. One night, I woke up from a dream in which I'd been looking at my mother – just staring at her – as she lay in her bed, in the dark. And she simply stopped breathing. Turned out to be true. Heart, they said. "She went very peacefully, in her sleep," they told me. "I know," I said, not meaning to.

After that, things got a little ... spooky. Or I did. Four times, I got premonitions of danger – attacks – that saved my life. I wish now I'd spread my warnings around a little. They probably wouldn't have been believed, but it's too late to tell now. I did mention them a few times after the attacks. People like to talk about their narrow escapes, you know.

Maybe that's how word got around that I was a little "spooky." It wasn't a big talent. I'm sure many people have greater – I know you do – but perhaps that's how I came to their attention. The NICE.

After the War, I was looking for work. I was approached by Wither, asking me to work for his NICE. Hadn't heard of it. He wanted me to be an "investigator" in "psychical research."

This was very much the early days, you understand. The NICE was just starting to grow. At first, there were just five founding members. Let me tell you about them:

Professor Augustus Frost. Your husband's told you about him and his precious "Macrobes." He was a neurologist. He met his Macrobes while doing secret brain vivisections on a pair of hopeless-case patients. They began talking to him, you see, on the operating table. The same conversation continued first through one patient, then through the other. Neither had enough brain left to think with, but they'd talk to Frost. And only him. Just little snatches, but he'd fill in the gaps, lead them on, and build up his picture.

John Wither circulated through the civil service before he retired to found the NICE. He was doing that astral-projection act for a decade, at least, before joining the NICE, and he met his "authorities" while out and about doing that.

I doubt you've heard of Haviland Gripley. He was the third richest gentile banker in England, at one point. Blackmail was the foundation of his fortune, but he ran drugs on the side. Sometimes he sampled them, and he met the Macrobes in repeated drug dreams. The NICE couldn't have got started without his money and, even more importantly, his list of favors owed. But they didn't keep him. Wither had him killed by persuading Miss Hardcastle's predecessor to triple a drug dose. Then he left an anonymous tip to a lethal enemy of the predecessor, just to keep things tidy.

I'm sure you never heard of Father Simon Spike. He was a C. of E. priest. I think he went on missionary work in Africa to strengthen his faith. It didn't work. He began collecting religious ideas the way other men collect stamps. He became an ethnographer, professional. Then went on to become an occultist. So I guess he did get his faith back, in a manner of speaking. He was the one introduced the other four to each other. At the direction of his masters, his "riders," he called them. They didn't have a lot of use for him after that, and shortly after they hired me, he was found dead in his study. The place was choking with incense, and he'd moved aside all the furniture and written diagrams all over the floor. It's my belief he was trying to join his riders, and I guess he did, as much as possible.

The last founder was Professor Leonard Metier. He was an electronics whiz. Got rich selling his designs to the Fascists, before the War. One night, he was trying something exotic on radio and started getting little hissing bursts of code. Our friends the Macrobes again. He thought they were space-aliens. He it was that popularized the NICE with the scientists. He recruited Filostrato. He was behind Weston, too. That's a long tale. Frost saw him as competition for the Macrobes' favor. Made a study of burglary, just to be able to slip into Metier's lab and sabotage his equipment. Little things. Loose wires here and there. Missing bolts. Metier began to joke about his "gremlin," but he was only half joking! After all, he knew about the Macrobes, and he didn't know what they might or might not do. In the end, he was electrocuted, as Frost always hoped.

* * *

Jane had been taking notes rapidly. Bergamot paused and so did she, flexing her fingers and sighing. She noticed again how pale he looked. "Shall we take a break?" she asked. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

He appeared to think this over carefully. "Thank you. I'd like to try that."

Jane went to the kitchen, wondering what was keeping Mark. He was not there. But he couldn't have gone to the bedroom or left the flat without her seeing him.

She put the problem aside for a moment and set herself to making the tea. The kettle sat on the gas flame. She hoisted it, to judge how much water was in it. As soon as she touched the handle, it steamed and began to whistle faintly. She put the hot water and the tea ball in the pot, then began rummaging for some biscuits. Her movements seemed unnaturally loud, and she realized there was no noise of traffic. She opened the window and looked out.

No moving cars. No pedestrians. No birds. No wind. The clouds hung motionless in the sky, as if in a painting. The leaves on the trees were likewise still. All of which added up to ... what?

She glanced back at the flame of the burner. Usually, it flickered. Now, it burned with perfect steadiness. That was nice. She supposed. She turned it off.

She poured the tea and took two cups and a plate of biscuits back to her desk on a tray. Mr. Bergamot smiled, thanked her, and sipped.

* * *

Well, as I said, they hired me to be an investigator in psychical research. They sent me to all manner of odd places: the PRS, the Rosicrucians, the Swedenborgians, the Anthroposophists and Theosophists, and seances without end.

Before I went, they would give me a long list of questions, sometimes very particular about the wording. They always told me to be on the lookout for anything odd. And afterward, they'd grill me for hours. They had me read books by Houdini on unmasking fake mediums.

I interviewed people from the Order of Golden Dawn, the Vintrasians, and the Albion Ashram. I tracked down an old man and young woman in Penrhyndeudraeth, down in Wales, uncle and neice, who claimed to be the "last of the Mornuminori," whatever that meant. But they struck me as most unpleasant customers. So did Mr. Lafee. I'll give you the addresses for all of them, if you want to keep track of them yourself.

But none of it seemed to mean anything. I'd gotten a great education in the varieties of nonsense, but that was it. I told my employers so. Said I didn't want them wasting their money. Truth to tell, I didn't like the work, and I knew they saw that.

I could see they were frustrated. Wither got very regretful in that scary way of his. Gripley blustered about getting their money's worth. Frost and Metier wondered out loud if I was any use, and Metier made ugly little remarks about how my investigations had got me some queer enemies, and the NICE wouldn't be protecting me any more if they decided to let me go. Spike was dead by then, which sort of underlined the seriousness of the situation.

So, when they started my training, I put up with it. Scared not to. Frost did most of it. You'd think he'd have had Wither in to teach me, but no. I found out later, he and Frost had some kind of argument or contest over who'd "get" me, and Frost won. He had me guess cards and dice throws. Had me guess who was on the other side of closed doors. Had me punished if I failed. Gave me some of Gripley's drugs and hypnotized me, to teach me to walk out of my body. Astral projection, it's called. I got quite good at it, though. After three or four tries, I could launch myself all kinds of places.

They set me to spying on anyone who worked against the NICE. Had me play astral detective and solve some crimes, though they never turned the evidence over to the police. They tried to set me spying on each other, but they were that suspicious of each other, it never came to the pinch. One of my few strokes of luck.

I spied on you, too, as I said. I want to apologize now. I was in fear for my life, but it was still wrong. I've stood here in this very apartment. I've seen a violet light around your head while you dreamed. I've dreamed of you dreaming your dreams, seeing them over your shoulder, so to speak.

But I never saw you again after you went to St. Anne's. I didn't find out about St. Anne's until just recently. I just knew that, a few days after you read about Alcasan, I couldn't find you. I could only reach this apartment when it was empty. Sometimes, I'd spot you from a distance, in the street, but I could never catch up to you. Wither and Frost would have been sputtering, if they'd still been human enough.

By then, Gripley and Metier were dead. I found out the particulars myself, though I never told Wither or Frost. By then, I had been at Belbury for months. A prisonner, and I knew it, kept in by their death threats. Astral projection was my only freedom.

And I had standing orders, whenever I went out projecting for them, to be on the lookout for Macrobes. Frost couldn't tell me what to look for in any specifics, just "any energies or agencies not associated with human beings."

Well, I saw 'em. Clouds or whirlwinds or light-beams of impossible colors. Most often, I saw them dancing around Frost and Wither, or even surrounding them, engulfing them. When I reported that, they wanted me to talk to them.

That was the whole problem, you see, what they had originally hired me for. They knew the Macrobes were out there, and had different ways of contacting them. Metier's radio. Frost's patients. Wither's own encounters during his little walkabouts, and Gripley's dreams. But it was always fragmentary and vague and slow. They wanted a good, clear channel. Or the Macrobes did. Or both. That was supposed to be me.

Well, I'm happy to say I was a great disappointment to them, that way. After seeing them work, and seeing the people they had me contact, it was pretty clear to me what these "Macrobes" really were. Devils. Dress it up any way you like.

I'd never been a pious man, but there's nothing like having your soul sent out of your body to meet devils face to face, to give you a strong incentive. I went on spying for them, to save my life, but I prayed all the time to be saved from those devil Macrobes. And I was. Many times, at first, they'd come swarming over me, or looming over me like thunderstorms, while I was out projecting – or even when I was just lying in my room at Belbury – and I could tell they were trying to talk to me. But I just heard booming, ringing noises. They gave up, in the end.

Since I had nothing else to do, I spied a great deal on Wither and Frost and their friends. So I saw what was shaping up. Wither and Frost didn't hear from the Macrobes much, but they were seldom without their company, and I saw more and more that the Macrobes were steering them, and steering their underlings a fair bit, to build up the NICE. And there were still occasional communications, words, through dreams and Metier's radio.

Between them and Filostrato, they cooked up their plan for "immortality" and "perfect rapport" with the Macrobes. Then they went shopping for a head. They considered me first, but the Macrobes told 'em no. I swear, I was almost greatful to the monsters. I think Frost considered volunteering. But the risk frightened him off. Same with Filostrato. Then Alcasan was condemned to the guillotine. I remember seeing Filostrato laughing and toasting the occasion – with mineral water – on the night of the execution. Frost was back from Paris, a few hours later, with the head packed in ice.

And pretty soon, they had their little monster, their little idol croaking away to them. A week later, Miss Hardcastle stepped into my room and shot me through the heart.

* * *

Jane nodded but did not look up or stop writing. She had not guessed, exactly, but it was still no surprise.

Bergamot had found himself hurled out, in an involuntary projection. After a few minutes, he decided he was hardly worse off than before, considering the situation, and possibly better. And he decided to stick around Belbury, to spy on those who had set him spying on their betters, to see if he could work against them.

There had been precious little he could do, but he had seen much. He told Jane of conversations overheard, details of security and financial arrangements. He answered her questions. She wrote on and on, conscious of a reluctance to look up from her notebook, into the dead man's face. Her back and hand ached.

Jane learned how Metier and Frost had argued over whether the Macrobes were extraterrestrial, as Metier thought, or native, as Frost thought, until Frost dropped the matter as immaterial.

She learned how Weston was recruited and backed by the NICE, through Feverstone, without ever knowing of the Macrobes, and how the NICE founders rejoiced in the supposed baracade that kept hostile "Macrobes" out beyond the Moon.

She learned that a great many filing cabinets full of papers belonging to the defunct NICE now reposed in old London offices of the NICE. They would not be ignored forever. What should Logres do about them?

Perhaps more urgently, what should Logres do about Metier's old experimental radio, stowed in a shed behind an undistinguished Oxfordshire house that stood empty while Metier's estate looked for a buyer? The dark eldila had ignored the thing for many months, but would that continue? Would it be any use to destroy the thing and its plans, or would the evil spirits simply use one of the myriad other channels they had used over history?

She learned of le Prieur de Sion, which seemed to be a much older, French version of an Inner Ring like the NICE. It had colluded with the NICE to get them Alcasan's head, motivated, apparently, by some details of Alcasan's genealogy. They needed looking into.

She learned that Miss Hardcastle had been over-enthusiastic in her murder of Bergamot. She had heard Frost and Wither complain of his noncompliance and suspected spying, and took what she thought to be logical steps, but she had been reprimanded by (or through) the Head itself and had gone off on a three-day drunk, anxiously shepherded by her office harem, to dull the memory of the experience.

Finally, "I can't think of any more," he said, and sighed. Now she did look up. He looked just as before. He had finished his cup of tea and the biscuits. He stood, a bit wobbly. "I must go now."

"Thank you, Mr. Bergamot. Thank you so much. This will clear up a lot, and be very useful."

"Good of you to say so." He opened the door. The young men in white stepped into view, still smiling. There was no wheelchair this time. He smiled at her again. "Pray for me."

She nodded. "Yes."

He gave her a little salute and walked out, closing the door behind him. She heard a car go by, and breeze in the trees outside the window. Her back and hand were no longer tired. She sighed and, because it had to be done, opened the door and looked out. The hallway was empty. Right.

She returned to her chair. Mark came out of the kitchen, with a cup of tea. "Oh!" he said. "You already have– Wait. How did–?" She looked at her desk, where the tray still lay. Bergamot's cup was still empty. Her own was full, steaming gently.

The Volunteer

Good Walking

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010