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Out Of Depth

I

Rip had got to the decent age when he disliked meeting new people. He lived a contented life between New York and the more American parts of Europe and everywhere, by choosing his season, he found enough of his old acquaintances to keep him effortlessly amused. For fifteen years at least he had dined with Margot Metroland during the first week of his visit to London, and he had always been sure of finding six or eight familiar and welcoming faces. It is true that there were also strangers, but these had passed before him and disappeared from his memory, leaving no more impression than a change of servants at his hotel.
Tonight, however, as he entered the drawing room, before he had greeted his hostess or nodded to Alastair Trumptington, he was aware of something foreign and disturbing. A glance round the assembled party confirmed his alarm. All the men were standing save one; these were mostly old friends interspersed with a handful of new, gawky, wholly inconsiderable young men, but the seated figure instantly arrested his attention and froze his bland smile. This was an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.
Lady Metroland seldom affronted her guests’ reticence by introducing them.
“Dear Rip,” she said, “it’s lovely to see you again. I’ve got all the gang together for you, you see,” and then noticing that his eyes were fixed upon the stranger, added, “Doctor Kakophilos, this is Mr. Van Winkle. Doctor Kakophilos,” she added, “is a great magician. Norah brought him, I can’t think why.”
“Musician?”
“Magician. Norah says there’s nothing he can’t do.”
“How do you do?” said Rip.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr. Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.
“Eh?”
“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say ‘Love is the law, Love under will.’”
“I see.”
“You are unusually blessed. Most men are blind.”
“I tell you what,” said Lady Metroland. “Let’s all have some dinner.”
It took an hour’s substantial eating and drinking before Rip began to feel at ease again. He was well placed between two married women of his own generation, with both of whom, at one time and another, he had had affairs; but even their genial gossip could not entirely hold his attention and he found himself continually gazing down the table to where, ten places away, Dr. Kakophilos was frightening a pop-eyed débutante out of all semblance of intelligence. Later, however, wine and reminiscence began to glow within him. He remembered that he had been brought up a Catholic and had therefore no need to fear black magic. He reflected that he was wealthy and in good health; that none of his women had ever borne him ill-will (and what better sign of good character was there than that?); that it was his first week in London and that everyone he most liked seemed to be there too; that the wine was so copious he had ceased to notice its excellence. He got going well and soon had six neighbours listening as he told some successful stories in his soft, lazy voice; he became aware with familiar, electric tremors that he had captured the attention of a lady opposite on whom he had had his eye last summer in Venice and two years before in Paris; he drank a good deal more and didn’t care a damn for Dr. Kakophilos.
Presently, almost imperceptibly to Rip, the ladies left the dining room. He found himself with a ballon of brandy and a cigar, leaning back in his chair and talking for about the first time in his life to Lord Metroland. He was telling him about big game when he was aware of a presence at his other side, like a cold draught. He turned and saw that Dr. Kakophilos had come sidling up to him.
“You will see me home tonight,” said the magician. “You and Sir Alastair?”
“Like hell I will,” said Rip.
“Like hell,” repeated Dr. Kakophilos, deep meaning resounding through his horrible Cockney tones. “I have need of you.”
“Perhaps we ought to be going up,” said Lord Metroland, “or Margot will get restless.”
For Rip the rest of the evening passed in a pleasant daze. He remembered Margot confiding in him that Norah and that silly little something girl had had a scene about Dr. Kakophilos and had both gone home in rages. Presently the party began to thin until he found himself alone with Alastair Trumptington drinking whiskeys in the small drawing room. They said good-bye and descended the stairs arm in arm. “I’ll drop you, old boy.”
“No, old boy, I’ll drop you.”
“I like driving at night.”
“So do I, old boy.”
They were on the steps when a cold Cockney voice broke in on their friendly discussion.
“Will you please drop me?” A horrible figure in a black cloak had popped out on them.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Alastair in some distaste.
Dr. Kakophilos gave an obscure address in Bloomsbury.
“Sorry, old boy, bang out of my way.”
“And mine.”
“But you said you liked driving at night.”
“Oh God! All right, jump in.”
And the three went off together.
Rip never quite knew how it came about that he and Alastair went up to Dr. Kakophilos’s sitting room. It was certainly not for a drink, because there was none there; nor did he know how it was that Dr. Kakophilos came to be wearing a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat. It only came to him quite suddenly that Dr. Kakophilos was wearing these clothes; and when it came it set him giggling, so uncontrollably that he had to sit on the bed. And Alastair began to laugh too, and they both sat on the bed for a long time laughing.
But quite suddenly Rip found that they had stopped laughing and that Dr. Kakophilos, still looking supremely ridiculous in his sacerdotal regalia, was talking to them ponderously about time and matter and spirit and a number of things which Rip had got through forty-three eventful years without considering.
“And so,” Dr. Kakophilos was saying, “you must breathe the fire and call upon Omraz the spirit of release and journey back through the centuries and recover the garnered wisdom which the ages of reason have wasted. I chose you because you are the two most ignorant men I ever met. I have too much knowledge to risk my safety. If you never come back nothing will be lost.”
“Oh, I say,” said Alastair.
“And what’s more, you’re tipsy,” said Dr. Kakophilos relapsing suddenly into everyday speech. Then he became poetic again and Rip yawned and Alastair yawned.
At last Rip said: “Jolly decent of you to tell us all this, old boy; I’ll come in another time to hear the rest. Must be going now, you know.”
“Yes,” said Alastair. “A most interesting evening.”
Dr. Kakophilos removed his crimson hat and mopped his moist, hairless head. He surveyed his parting guests with undisguised disdain.
“Sots,” he said. “You are partakers in a mystery beyond your comprehension. In a few minutes your drunken steps will have straddled the centuries. Tell me, Sir Alastair,” he asked, his face alight with ghastly, facetious courtesy, “have you any preference with regard to your translation? You may choose any age you like.”
“Oh, I say, jolly decent of you ... Never was much of a dab at History you know.”
“Say.”
“Well, any time really. How about Ethelred the Unready?—always had a soft spot for him.”
“And you, Mr. Van Winkle?”
“Well, if I’ve got to be moved about, being an American, I’d sooner go forwards—say five hundred years.”
Dr. Kakophilos drew himself up. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
“I can answer that one. ‘Love is the law, Love under will.’”
“God, we’ve been a long time in that house,” said Alastair as at length they regained the Bentley. “Awful old humbug. Comes of getting tight.”
“Hell, I could do with another,” said Rip. “Know anywhere?”
“I do,” said Alastair and, turning a corner sharply, ran, broadside on, into a mail van that was thundering down Shaftesbury Avenue at forty-five miles an hour.
When Rip stood up, dazed but, as far as he could judge, without specific injury, he was scarcely at all surprised to observe that both cars had disappeared.
There was so much else to surprise him; a light breeze, a clear, star-filled sky, a wide horizon unobscured by buildings. The moon, in her last quarter, hung low above a grove of trees, illumined a slope of hummocky turf and a herd of sheep, peacefully cropping the sedge near Piccadilly Circus and, beyond, was reflected in a still pool, pierced here and there with reed.
Instinctively, for his head and eyes were still aflame from the wine he had drunk and there was a dry, stale taste in his mouth, Rip approached the water. His evening shoes sank deeper with each step and he paused, uncertain. The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated.
“Golly,” said Mr. Van Winkle slowly, “the twenty-fifth century.”
Then he crossed the threshold of the underground station and, kneeling on the slippery fifth step, immersed his head in the water.
Absolute stillness lay all around him except for rhythmic, barely audible nibbling of the pastured sheep. Clouds drifted across the moon and Rip stood awed by the darkness; they passed and Rip stepped out into the light, left the grotto and climbed to a grass mound at the corner of the Haymarket.
To the south, between the trees, he could pick out the silver line of the river. Warily, for the ground was full of pits and crevices, he crossed what had once been Leicester and Trafalgar Squares. Great flats of mud, submerged at high water, stretched to his feet over the Strand, and at the margin of mud and sedge was a cluster of huts, built on poles; inaccessible because their careful householders had drawn up the ladders at sunset. Two campfires, almost extinct, glowed red upon platforms of beaten earth. A ragged guard slept with his head on his knees. Two or three dogs prowled below the huts, nosing for refuse, but the breeze was blowing from the riverbank and, though Rip had made some noise in his approach, they gave no alarm. Limitless calm lay on all sides among the monstrous shapes of grassgrown masonry and concrete. Rip crouched in a damp hollow and waited for day.
It was still night, darker from the setting of the moon, when the cocks began to crow—twenty or thirty of them, Rip judged—from the roosts under the village. The sentry came to life and raked over the embers sending up a spatter of wood sparks.
Presently a thin line of light appeared downstream, broadening into delicate summer dawn. Birds sang all round him. Tousled households appeared on the little platforms before the huts; women scratching their heads, shaking out blankets, naked children. They let down ladders of hide and stick; two or three women padded down to the river with earthenware pots to draw water; they hitched up their clothes to the waist and waded thigh deep.
From where Rip lay he could see the full extent of the village. The huts extended for half a mile or so, in a single line along the bank. There were about fifty of  them; all of the same size and character, built of wattle and mud with skin-lined roofs; they seemed sturdy and in good repair. A dozen or more canoes were beached along the mud flats; some of them dug-out trees, others of a kind of basketwork covered in skins. The people were fair-skinned and fair-haired, but shaggy, and they moved with the loping gait of savages. They spoke slowly in the sing-song tones of an unlettered race who depend on oral tradition for the preservation of their lore.
Their words seemed familiar yet unintelligible. For more than an hour Rip watched the village come to life and begin the routine of its day, saw the cooking-pots slung over the fires, the men going down and muttering sagely over their boats as longshoremen do; saw the children scrambling down the supports of the houses to the refuse below—and for perhaps the first time in his life felt uncertain of what he should do. Then with as much resolution as he could muster, he walked towards the village.
The effect was instantaneous. There was a general scramble of women for their children, a general stampede for the ladders. The men at the boats stopped fiddling with tackle and came lumbering up the banks. Rip smiled and walked on. The men got together and showed no inclination to budge. Rip raised his clasped hands and shook them amicably in the air as he had seen boxers do when entering the ring. The shaggy white men made no sign of recognition.
“Good morning,” said Rip. “Is this London?”
The men looked at each other in surprise, and one very old white beard giggled slightly. After a painful delay the leader nodded and said, “Lunnon.” Then they cautiously encircled him until, growing bolder, they came right up to him and began to finger his outlandish garments, tapping his crumpled shirt with their horny nails and plucking at his studs and buttons. The women meanwhile were shrieking with excitement in the house-tops. When Rip looked up to them and smiled, they dodged into the doorways, peeping out at him from the smoky interiors. He felt remarkably foolish and very dizzy. The men were discussing him; they squatted on their hams and began to debate, without animation or conviction. Occasional phrases came to him, “white,” “black boss,” “trade,” but for the most part the jargon was without meaning. Rip sat down too. The voices rose and fell liturgically. Rip closed his eyes and made a desperate effort to wake himself from this preposterous nightmare. “I am in London, in nineteen-thirty-three, staying at the Ritz Hotel. I drank too much last night at Margot’s. Have to go carefully in future. Nothing really wrong. I am in the Ritz in nineteen-thirty-three.” He said it over and over again, shutting his senses to all outward impression, forcing his will towards sanity. At last, fully convinced, he raised his head and opened his eyes ... early morning on the river, a cluster of wattle huts, a circle of impassive barbarous faces ...

II

It is not to be supposed that one who has lightly skipped five hundred years would take great notice of the passage of days and nights. Often in Rip’s desultory reading, he had struck such phrases as, “From then time ceased to have any reality for her”; at last he knew what they meant. There was a time when he lived under guard among the Londoners; they fed him on fish and coarse bread and heady, viscous beer; often, in the late afternoon when the work for the day was over, the village women would collect round him in a little circle, watching all his movements with an intent scrutiny; sometimes impatiently (once a squat young matron came up to him and suddenly tweaked his hair) but more often shyly—ready to giggle or take flight at any unusual movement.
This captivity may have lasted many days. He was conscious of restraint and strangeness; nothing else.
Then there was another impression; the coming of the boss. A day of excitement in the village; the arrival of a large mechanically propelled boat, with an awning and a flag; a crew of smart Negroes, all wearing uniforms of leather and fur although it was high summer; a commander among the Negroes issuing orders in a quiet supercilious voice. The Londoners brought out sacks from their huts and spread on the beach the things they had recovered from the ruins by digging—pieces of machinery and ornament, china and glass and carved stonework, jewellery and purposeless bits of things they hoped might have value. The blacks landed bales of thick cloth, cooking utensils, fish-hooks, knife-blades and axe-heads; discussion and barter followed, after which the finds from the diggings were bundled up into the launch. Rip was led forward and presented, turned round and inspected; then he too was put in the launch.
A phantasmagoric journey downstream; Rip seated on the cargo; the commander puffing imperturbably at a cigar. Now and then they stopped at other villages, smaller than London, but built on the same plan. Here curious Englishmen crowded the banks and paddled in to stare at him until peremptorily told to keep their distance. The nightmare journey continued.
Arrival at the coast; a large military station; uniforms of leather and fur; black faces; flags; saluting. A pier with a large steamer alongside; barracks and a government house. A Negro anthropologist with vast spectacles. Impressions became more vivid and more brief; momentary illumination like flickering lightning. Someone earnestly trying to talk to Rip. Saying English words very slowly; reading to him from a book, familiar words with an extraordinary accent; a black man trying to read Shakespeare to Rip. Someone measured his skull with calipers. Growing blackness and despair; restraint and strangeness; moments of illumination rarer and more fantastic.
At night when Rip woke up and lay alone with his thoughts quite clear and desperate, he said: “This is not a dream. It is simply that I have gone mad.” Then more blackness and wildness.
The officers and officials came and went. There was a talk of sending him “home.” “Home,” thought Rip and beyond the next official town, vague and more distant, he saw the orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, the cabin trunks and promenade decks, the casinos and bars and supper restaurants, that were his home.
And then later—how much later he could not tell—something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar ... and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
“Ite, missa est.”

III

It was some days after the accident before Rip was well enough to talk. Then he asked for the priest who had been by his head when he recovered consciousness.
“What I can’t understand, Father, is how you came to be there.”
“I was called in to see Sir Alastair. He wasn’t badly hurt, but he had been knocked unconscious. You both had a lucky escape. It was odd Sir Alastair asking for me. He isn’t a Catholic, but he seems to have had some sort of dream while he was unconscious that made him want to see a priest. Then they told me you were here too, so I came along.”
Rip thought for a little. He felt very dizzy when he tried to think.
“Alastair had a dream too, did he?”
“Apparently something about the Middle Ages. It made him ask for me.”
“Father,” said Rip, “I want to make a confession ... I have experimented in black art ...”



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