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3: Eustace Writes a Letter

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« on: May 23, 2023, 11:17:49 am »

I

IT would be impossible to describe the various forms of ritual practised by the Children of Osiris without writing an exhaustive treatise on Cooism. There is such a book available to the general public---The Development, Practice, and General Principles of the Cult of Coo by Eustace K. Mildmann---Utopia Press---21/-. The work is in two volumes. The reading is not, alas, very much snappier than the title. But a word about the constitutional side of Cooism is, perhaps, essential.

Apart from the High Prophet and the Prophet-in-Waiting, the fortunes of the Movement were presided over by the members of the Inmost Temple. These numbered six---three High Priests and three High Priestesses. Among the latter, of course, was Mrs. Hagge-Smith. For all her airy assumption that she had this governing body in her pocket, Mrs. Hagge-Smith was more optimistic than accurate. There were at least two other members of the Inmost Temple who carried nearly as much weight in the order as she did---Penelope Parker and Hansford Boot. Both had money, which made them quite independent of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s whims and prejudices. And both had brains which in Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s case were at a premium. Alicia admittedly had energy and enthusiasm but when it came to academic matters she was a broken reed. Hansford was Eustace Mildmann’s stoutest champion. Penelope backed Penpeti. The other three members of the Inmost Temple, although less influential, had, despite Alicia’s insidious propaganda remained loyal to the founder of the Movement. But the rift dividing these two factions had been steadily widening and at the meeting convened to discuss the idea of a Summer Convention matters reached a new high level of tension.

“Wrong approach. Stupid!” exclaimed Hansford Boot, who spoke a kind of shorthand English peculiarly his own. “Tents. Trees. Arcadian idyll angle. Ridiculous. Laughable. Too frivolous. Don’t like it.”

“I must say . . .” began Eustace with a nod of approval, “that as the founder of the order I----”

“Balderdash!” shot out Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “We must carry Cooism out into the world. This parochial attitude shows a deplorable lack of spirit. We must grow and grow and grow!” She made a gesture of expansion which caused the committee-men on either side of her to lean back quickly in their chairs. “We must no longer hide our light under a bushel. We want to gather more and more children to our bosom.” She made a gesture of gathering children to her bosom, which enabled the committee-men to tilt forward again, though they kept a wary eye open for any further hint of expansion. “I know that I have the full support of our splendid Prophet-in-Waiting and I suggest we call upon dear Mr. Penpeti to express his views.”

Penpeti did so with voluble charm, his rich voice resounding under the tin-roof of the temple and causing a frisson of voluptuous pleasure to course down Penelope’s spine. The weaker section of the opposition began to waver. Hansford came back with a further series of staccato objections. Eustace again attempted to back him up, only to be interrupted a second time by his redoubtable patron. Penelope said nothing. Penpeti painted a noble and imaginative picture of thousands of sunburned, smiling devotees in rational clothing, strolling happily under the immemorial elms of Old Cowdene Park. Hansford sketched in an impressionistic picture of those same thousands clad in mackintoshes and goloshes squelching about in the mud beneath immemorial elms that dripped and whipped in a cold June wind. Mrs. Hagge-Smith said: “Balderdash!” Eustace put in timidly: “As High Prophet I do beg of you to allow me----” But this time it was Penelope, speaking for the first time, who interrupted him.

She spoke languidly, mystically, in her soft attractive drawl for ten minutes without a break. Her slender hands wove esoteric patterns on the air. The gauzy veil over her corn-coloured hair was like an aura about her and the pale oval of her face was lit with the beauty of pure devotion. The male section of the committee, with the exception of Penpeti was held spellbound. Yes---even Eustace’s weak eyes were expressive of tenderness and admiration. He gazed at Penelope as if she were the reincarnation of some ancient goddess, of Isis herself, perhaps, the hallowed wife of Osiris. In fact he had always believed that she was Isis reborn. In the same way, with the most abject humility of course, he wondered if he might not be a resurrected Osiris. Beyond that he dare not think without exercising the more profane side of his imagination. He only knew that Penelope’s presence was a kind of sweet torment, a perilous distraction. Unfortunately Eustace was one of those prize idiots who fondle the belief that no man over fifty can fall in love. He was unable therefore to diagnose his state-of-mind with any accuracy. Actually Eustace was climbing the first rungs of a ladder that was to lead him to dizzy heights of foolishness and mental anguish. Fate, in short, had earmarked Penelope as his Achilles heel.

When, therefore, Penelope declared herself in favour of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s idea, Eustace’s opposition collapsed. The matter was put to the vote, and the motion, with the single exception of Hansford Boot, received the full support of the committee. Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s vision was already well on the way to becoming a reality.

II

When the other members of the Inmost Temple had departed, Hansford Boot drew Eustace aside into the vestry. He looked glum and grim.

“Well, Hansford?” enquired Eustace gently, “what is it you are so anxious to see me about? You look depressed.”

“I am. Don’t like it. Hate hostility. But felt I must speak up.”

“And the trouble?”

“Penpeti!” snapped Mr. Boot. “In collaboration with Mrs. H-S.”

And then it all came out---an impassioned, yet well-reasoned belief that there was treason in their midst. Hansford Boot was emphatic. Unless Eustace took a strong line there was a danger that the Temple of Cooism would be split asunder. Wasn’t Eustace aware of the growing conspiracy among certain elements of the Movement to deny the original ethics of Cooism, in favour of new and disturbing principles? This Summer Convention was a perfect example of his theory. There was no doubt that Mrs. H-S and Penpeti were filled with ambition. They were hungry for power. Mrs. H-S would like to see Penpeti elevated to the position of High Prophet. She was working to that end and, if Eustace were unprepared to retire with good grace, then, declared Mr. Boot, the Penpeti-Hagge-Smith element would break away and start a kind of bastard Cooism of their own. Such a tragedy, at all costs, must be avoided. Hansford Boot was even more emphatic.

“Shall do all I can to cook their goose. Must rally round you with unflinching determination. Vital! Something strange about Penpeti. Intuition tells me. Undesirable influence. Hypocritical. Mrs. H-S too simple to see it. Led by the nose. Penpeti using her for his own ends.”

His telegraphic speech gathered force and speed. His evident sincerity was impressive and Eustace warmed to his old friend. Such devotion was touching and he felt unworthy of it. But deep down he knew that Hansford’s suggestions matched up perfectly with his own unspoken suspicions. If only he were less timid. If only he had the courage to go to Mrs. Hagge-Smith and point out to her that as the Father of Cooism his word was law. If only he had the fire and eloquence of an Old Testament prophet to sway the dissenters and bring them back into the fold. But those gifts were unfortunately with the opposition, with Penpeti himself. A sudden surge of anger swept through him at the thought of Penpeti’s overweening conceit and presumption. And this anger increased when he thought of Penelope Parker’s obvious admiration for his Prophet-in-Waiting. He resettled his pince-nez at a more aggressive angle and drew himself up to his full height. At that moment he would have revealed to anybody with psychic powers an aura of flaming, unequivocal red.

“My dear Hansford, you’re right. By Geb, you are!” It was the one oath he allowed himself. “Something must be done about it. We must act. And we must act quickly. We must nip this unhappy conspiracy in the bud. But how? How?”

“Leave it to me!” exclaimed Mr. Boot stoutly. “You must do nothing. Lower your dignity. Undermine your prestige. Fatal! I’ll handle this. Think of a way. We’re not alone remember. Thousands of orthodox believers behind us. Encouraging!”

“But I beg of you, Hansford---nothing violent. I would prefer an appeal to Peta’s sense of loyalty rather than any direct recriminations. The Movement can’t suffer an open breach in its ranks without the very loss of dignity and prestige you’re so anxious to preserve. We must have no brawling---nothing of that kind, please.”

“Leave it to me!” rapped out Mr. Boot for the second time. “Never fear. Always diplomatic. But time ripe for action. Strong action. Rely on me!”

III

Hansford Boot in the days that followed made no effort to tackle Peta Penpeti directly about the matter. He followed the far more diplomatic course of waylaying Mrs. Hagge-Smith at every conceivable opportunity. He argued, with considerable common-sense, that Penpeti by himself constituted no real danger. It was only in alliance with Mrs. Hagge-Smith that he might try to undermine poor Eustace’s authority and wreck the Movement by dividing it. The great thing was to drive a wedge between Penpeti and his admirer.

Luckily for Hansford, it was about that time when Penpeti made a fateful mistake and played into his hands. It was a mistake that anybody in similar circumstances might have committed. Penpeti, quite unaware that he was about to touch off a keg of gunpowder, merely asked Mrs. Hagge-Smith for a loan. Now, if there was one thing that Mrs. Hagge-Smith hated beyond all other things, it was being touched for money. She was prepared to pay good salaries, subscribe generously to charities, lay a small fortune at the altar of her particular faith, but to be asked for money roused her to a fury. And in the case of Penpeti she felt it was even more irritating and inexcusable. Hadn’t she already granted him an annual emolument of five hundred pounds? And since he had no family to support, wasn’t that more than ample for his means? Wasn’t a simple life compatible with his status inside the Movement? Why did he want this extra money? Penpeti refused to say. It was in connection with a private matter.

“Pooh!” exclaimed Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “What right have you and I to private lives? We should have no life outside the Cause! None! I’m deeply shocked to hear you talk like this. And my dear Mr. Penpeti, never, never, never come to me again and ask for money!”

Penpeti departed from the presence a wiser and sadder man, and Hansford Boot realised that his criticism of the Prophet-in-Waiting was not falling on deaf ears. From that day there was a marked cooling off of Alicia’s interest in Penpeti and a new and welcome tendency to listen to Eustace without interrupting him. After all Eustace had never asked for a penny. Apart from the upkeep of a household worthy of his exalted position in the order, Eustace never spent a penny on his personal pleasures. He was annoyingly humble and unassertive but, bless the man, a sincere and devout servant of his faith. Alicia wondered if she hadn’t been a little hasty and misjudged Eustace.

In the meantime Penpeti, suddenly realising the new precariousness of his position, became increasingly worried. He had got to have that money. But how, in the name of Thoth, Set, and Mut, was he to raise the wind? Eustace? There was absolutely no hope in that direction and in any case he hated the idea of being under any obligation to Eustace. He had never liked his superior’s pious manner and undoubted integrity. It made him feel rather cheap and uncomfortable. Moreover it was Eustace who stood between him and the incredibly handsome salary of five thousand a year. Mrs. Hagge-Smith had made that quite plain. The High Prophet designate once he stepped into Eustace’s shoes, would automatically receive a High Prophet’s salary. The whole matter had been legalised through her solicitors. Even in the unlikely event of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s premature departure into the arms of Osiris, that five thousand a year was assured. But what real hope was there of immediate promotion? None. Eustace with his rational feeding and simple tastes would probably last for years. It was a tantalising situation and one that made Penpeti’s present position even more unbearable.

And then, with a flash of sheer inspiration, Penpeti thought of Penelope Parker. She was not his type and her anaemic mysticism annoyed him profoundly. He disliked her floating veils, her tendency to go off into trances at the slightest provocation, but as a possible pigeon to pluck she had one great advantage. She admired him without reservation. She had made this clear to him, more than once, with a frankness that was embarrassing. But as his taste in women was nearer to Rubens than Burne-Jones, Penpeti had remained austere and correct. His attitude to her had been monastic. But now, on the principle that beggars could not be choosers, Penpeti squared himself up for conquest. He decided to see Penelope alone on every possible occasion, to steal aside, as it were, her gauzy veils one by one, until he came (as he felt quite sure he would) to the eternal Eve lurking beneath them.

IV

Terence was living in a dream. Previous to Denise’s arrival he had always found it extremely difficult to put himself in a state of “non-being”. Now he found it damned hard to get out of. The girl had got him in a flat-spin. Perhaps nothing was more indicative of this than the fact that he suddenly felt utterly disinterested in eating. He no longer had astral visions of cutlets and filleted soles. Instead there was Denise, gently smiling, welcoming him to her bosom with open arms; Denise with her shapely head thrown back inviting his kisses; Denise, in an exquisite evening-frock, waiting to waltz with him; and once, turning his brick-red face even redder, Denise sitting on the edge of her bed in heliotrope pyjamas.

Unfortunately the Blot, in a frantic whirl of activity, more or less monopolised her secretary’s time. Terence, himself, since leaving school, had been forced to help his father in a similar secretarial capacity, with the result that he and Denise practically never saw each other alone.

One evening, however, about a week after Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s descent on Welworth, she and Eustace went into a huddle in the latter’s study over a little matter of ritual. Mrs. Summers, who had already divined which way the wind was blowing, tactfully kept clear of the drawing-room, leaving the young couple to take their coffee alone. The graven images about the room seemed to stare at them expectantly. Even the Eater Up of Souls seemed to pause a moment in his eternal task to cast a priapic eye at them. Terence blew his nose. Denise, without putting sugar in her coffee, stirred it vigorously.

“My sun sign,” said Terence suddenly, “is Taurus the Bull. What’s yours?”

Denise knew this was astrology and not having lived with Mrs. Hagge-Smith for nothing, she answered brightly:

“I’m Capricorn the Goat.”

“I say, that’s marvellous. Taurus and Capricorn are supposed to go awfully well together. In fact they’re almost twin souls. It’s jolly encouraging, isn’t it?”

“Why?”

“Well, you see . . . I rather want to get on well with you. I feel we’re both a bit lonely, you know. All this occult stuff’s jolly nice if you’re keen on it, but when you’re just a normal sort of person it’s terribly boring. Do you skate?”

“Yes, a bit. Why?”

“I was wondering if you could come skating with me to-morrow. The ice on the Long Pond is supposed to be perfect. Will you come?”

Denise shook her head.

“Impossible, I’m afraid. Mrs. H-S won’t let me off. I’ve just oodles to do at present. I’d love to come, of course.”

There was silence for a space. Terence rose, poked the already blazing fire and, greatly daring, reseated himself next to Denise on the hard wooden-backed sofa. His bare knees gleamed healthily in the firelight. Denise was acutely aware of his nearness. He muttered:

“I say, are you game for a bit of deception? There’s a temple gathering to-morrow night and they’ll all be there, of course. Couldn’t you work up a sort of a headache at the last minute? I’ll manage a sort of a cold, see? It would give us a chance to see more of each other, wouldn’t it?”

“It might,” admitted Denise cautiously.

“I’d ask you to come to the pictures, but as a matter of fact”---his embarrassment was enormous---“I haven’t a bean. Not a bean! Otherwise . . .”

“Would you be terribly insulted if I offered to . . .” Denise abandoned the sentence in mid-air.

“You mean, would I let you . . . ?”

“Yes, if you would. I’d love to.”

“I say, that’s awfully decent of you. It is really.”

“I’m glad you’ve got no silly pride.”

“Pride!” snorted Terence. “You can’t afford much pride on a tanner a week.” He jumped up and knocked a small hand-carved Ptah-Seker-Asar off a nearby table, stooped to recover it and, tilting the table as he groped, sent two Gebs, a Taurt, and a Nefer-Temu skidding off the polished surface. Denise went down on her hands and knees to help him recover this galaxy of fallen gods. And it was at that moment when a huge ham-like hand closed over one of hers and squeezed it violently. Denise winced, blushed and then protested. “You’re marvellous,” croaked Terence in a throaty bass. “A real sport. You’re the most wonderful----”

Very gently Denise withdrew her hand.

“Now Terence, if you take me to the pictures to-morrow you must promise to behave. No nonsense, please. Promise.”

“Of course,” declared Terence. “Of course!

V

But of course Terence didn’t behave; and of course Denise didn’t really want him to. They were young, fast falling in love, and Nature as usual had the last word. They walked home from the Welworth Odeon with their arms round each other’s waists, speaking only by means of small physical pressures and long searching glances. They had worked it to reach “Tranquilla” before the meeting at the temple broke up, little realising that Eustace that very evening had, in theatrical parlance, staged the first night of a brand new ritual which he had been working on for some months past; a very much foreshortened version of the usual mid-weekly service. This was unfortunate. Doubly unfortunate was Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s decision to walk home with Eustace in the interests of her figure rather than use the car. Opposite the house, overcome by an extra-passionate interest in each other, Denise and Terence suddenly halted, twined themselves into a somewhat inexpert embrace and kissed each other furiously. And at that precise moment, emerging from the gloom beyond the lamp-post came Eustace and Alicia in a deep discussion concerning the significance of the Pestchet Neteru, a subject over which they had not always, alas! Seen eye to eye.

Over this other subject they displayed no divergencies. Mrs. Hagge-Smith let out a wail of agonised astonishment. Eustace tut-tutted. Denise uttered a small embarrassed cry. Terence made no sound whatsoever. Still tut-tutting Eustace ushered the little party into the hall, where Denise with a murmured “Good night” pattered quickly up the stairs to her bedroom. He turned to Mrs. Hagge-Smith with an apologetic air.

“A regrettable contretemps,” he murmured. “I’m sure you’ll excuse me if----”

He waved a dismal hand at his son and nodded towards the door of his study. Taking the hint, Alicia bumped away up the stairs, leaving Terence to follow his father into the room.

“I’ve no need to tell you what a shock this has been to me,” piped Eustace without preliminary. “Miss Blake is a guest under our roof and, therefore, under my protection. When I witnessed that disgraceful exhibition under the lamp-post just now I felt ashamed of you, Terence---profoundly ashamed.” Terence wilted. He could have kicked himself for a fool. Lashings of darkness all around and he just had to embrace Denise under that confounded lamp-post!

“And it’s not only that,” went on Eustace sorrowfully. “It’s the deception. You told me that you had a cold in the head, when in fact there was nothing the matter with you. I understood Mrs. Hagge-Smith to say that Miss Blake wouldn’t be attending the meeting because----”

“I put her up to that,” grunted Terence. “The whole blooming mess-up is my fault. You mustn’t blame Denise. I’ve got a terrific influence over her. It’s a sort of hypnotic power, I think. I make her do all manner of things that she doesn’t really want to by just willing her to do them.”

“I can hold no brief for anybody with mesmeric powers who abuses them. If you’ve been granted this wonderful gift, Terence, you should exercise it only for good and noble ends---not in the interests of your selfish desires. This must go no further. It’s not only embarrassing for Miss Blake but a deliberate insult to dear Mrs. Hagge-Smith who naturally feels responsible for the girl’s welfare. I can’t ask Miss Blake to leave this house since she’s employed by Mrs. Hagge-Smith. So you’ll pack your things to-night and leave for your Uncle Edward’s by the first train. Understand, Terence?”

“But, father----”

“When Mrs. Hagge-Smith returns to Old Cowdene I shall allow you to come home. In the meantime you’ll make no attempt to see Miss Blake or correspond with her.”

“But, father----”

“To think that a boy of your upbringing and education...”

“But, father----”

“Well, well---what is it?”

“I’m in love with Denise.”

“In love? At your age? Don’t be absurd, Terence. This is no time for levity.”

“But I know I’m in love with her! I’ve just realised it!”

“Nonsense! Good night.”

“Good night, father.”

VI

But later, in the silent seclusion of his bedroom, Eustace experienced a sudden pang of remorse. Was he being quite fair to Terence? Wasn’t he adopting a high-minded attitude which, in the circumstances, he had no right to adopt? Hypocrisy was an evil thing and he was perilously near to becoming a hypocrite himself. Or was he?

He paced about the room, restless and unhappy, trying to analyse the new mood which had descended upon him. That very evening, during the performance of his new ritual, he had found his mind wandering. The old powers of concentration seemed to have deserted him. Twice he had lost his place in the service. Twice he had turned to the left instead of the right, a lapse that had caused considerable confusion among his acolytes and symbol-bearers. His customary faultless touch had been lacking. Moreover, it was not only his mind that had wandered, but his eye. Time and again, ashamed of such laxity, he found himself casting swift and surreptitious glances at Penelope Parker. He seemed to draw inspiration from her as she stood by his side bearing the gilded Wings of Osiris on a red velvet cushion. But a personal rather than an ecclesiastic inspiration.

The previous evening, under the stress of an imperative emotion, he had written her a long delicately-worded letter expressive of admiration and gratitude. He had done his utmost to avoid any suggestion that he was writing to her as a man. It was the letter of a High Prophet to a beloved and loyal member of his priesthood. And yet, somehow, the warmer, more human phrases had crept in and Eustace had not found the courage to erase them. He even felt a kind of perverse thrill in his daring; and so anxious was he to post the letter before he grew faint-hearted that he had slipped out of “Tranquilla” and caught the midnight collection.

And that evening, after the service, Penelope had come up to him with the sweetest, humblest of smiles and murmured:

“I want to thank you for all the kind and lovely things you said to me in your beautiful letter. You make me feel so unworthy.”

Returning home with Mrs. Hagge-Smith he had walked on air, until the sight of Terence with that girl in his arms had brought him to earth with a bump.

But wasn’t Terence, perhaps, moved by emotions not unlike his own? Eustace frowned. No! No! The idea was ridiculous! What he felt for Miss Parker was a pure and spirituelle devotion devoid of all gross desires. Terence’s behaviour was inexcusable. His deception unforgivable. Whatever happened it was his duty to guard his son against the lures and temptations of the flesh. He must, with constant vigilance, keep his son’s purity unspotted. Such low desires must be sublimated. Terence must live on the Higher Plane as befitted the son of a man with a great mission.

Eustace ceased his prowling and gazed, fascinated, at his open escritoire. Several sheets of notepaper lay invitingly on the blotting-pad. His uncapped fountain-pen was ready to hand. But no! He must control his impulses. It would be quite wrong and very tactless to send Miss Parker a second letter so soon after the first. No! No! He must resist the lure to express the pleasure she had afforded him by her charming words. He must be strong, undress and get into bed. He ripped off his coat and waistcoat. He undid his tie and whipped off his tall starched collar. He unbuttoned his braces. And then, almost before he realised it, he was seated at his escritoire, pen in hand. He tried to struggle up. Something stronger than his own will pinned him to his chair. His pen was already travelling over the glossy notepaper.

My very dear Miss Parker, he wrote.

Then, with the temerity of an innocent man who finds he has sold himself to the devil, Mr. Mildmann cast all further restraint to the winds. He might as well be damned for a Casanova as a Dante, eh? He went the whole hog. He screwed up the sheet of notepaper and flung it into the waste-paper basket. Again he took up his pen.

My very dear Penelope, he wrote,

I cannot tell you how moved I was by your reception of my very inadequate expressions of admiration and gratitude . . .

It took twelve closely-written sheets to convey all he had to say. And when he had sneaked out and posted his letter, Mr. Mildmann was far from realising that he was formulating a habit that in the long run was to bring him infinite distress.
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