Trouble with lichen, p.19
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.19

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘No. Of course not, Janet. But of all the sickening, stupid things to happen… Oh, you wait here a few minutes, Janet. I must think.’

  Diana went back to the window, and out into the little garden. She stood there, looking out over the tree tops of the park for nearly ten minutes before she returned. Her manner was brisk.

  ‘Janet, I want to broadcast. I don’t care what service, but some time on Saturday evening. One of those bits and pieces programmes would do, if necessary. Only ten minutes. Five would be enough. I want to tell them all about the Antigerone – the questions I wouldn’t answer before. Do you think that it could be fixed?’

  Janet smiled.

  ‘In the circumstances, any hesitation by any of the services seems highly unlikely, my dear. But I don’t see how anything you can say is going to alter the position much. At least, not unless you have some other source of supply…?’

  ‘Never mind about that now. Just get it fixed up for me, there’s a dear. And get it announced – make sure that it’s announced.’

  ‘Oh, they’ll announce it all right. But I don’t see –’

  ‘It’s all right, Janet. I know what I’m doing. Just do that for me, and then get on with organizing the League. It looks as if it will have to declare itself before long….’

  Janet Tewley left a few minutes later. The door had scarcely closed behind her when Diana was on the telephone to her office:

  ‘Oh, Sarah, will you find Miss Brendon, and send her round here. Give her a card to get her in.… Yes, it’s most important. I can’t explain now, but something’s happened. We’ll have to put everything forward… Yes, I think so, but there’s not a lot of time. That’s why I want her here quickly….’

  ‘Very well, Miss Brackley… Oh, by the way, I have a cable here from America. It’s addressed to Nefertiti. It says:

  ‘“Hold all deals pending our seven-figure offer Antigerone rights.”

  ‘It’s signed: Ben Lindenbaum, President, Pursuit of Happiness Drug Corporation, Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. Shall I…?’

  ∗

  A motor-coach pulled off the road on to the grass verge and put out all its lights. Figures descended one by one, and stood peering about them with eyes not yet accustomed to the starlit dimness. A voice said quietly, but loud enough for them all to hear:

  ‘All set? All got your stuff?’

  There were murmurs of assent.

  ‘Okay. Now keep it fixed in your heads. One owl hoot means that Jimmy’s cut the phone wires – they all go out of the place together, so that’ll isolate the whole set-up. Then you wait. If anybody spots you, jump him before he can raise an alarm, and see he’ll keep quiet. Now, when you hear three owl-hoots close together, you do your stuff – and not before. Three owl-hoots, remember. Everybody got that?

  ‘Right then. Watch your step – and watch the way we go. You’ll be finding your own way back here – and we’ll not be waiting long for stragglers. Come on now….’

  14

  Diana awoke to the ringing of the telephone beside her bed. She reached for it reluctantly. ‘Yes?’ she said.

  The operator’s voice told her.

  ‘Good morning, Miss Brackley. Sorry to wake you, but there’s a call for you from a Miss Saxover. She’s on your list, and says it’s important.’

  Diana came fully awake in a moment.

  ‘Yes. Put her through, please.’

  ‘Diana? It’s Zephanie.’

  Yes What is it, Zephanie?’

  ‘Oh, Diana. It’s Darr again. It’s all been burnt – burnt right out this time. Daddy’s been taken to hospital and –’

  Diana’s heart jumped suddenly, and hurt for a moment. She clutched the receiver.

  ‘Oh, Zephie! What’s happened to him? What – what –?’

  ‘It’s all right, Diana. He’s not badly hurt. Not burnt, I mean. He had to jump out of the window, and he’s rather shaken up. He was sleeping in the coach-house flats, you know –’

  ‘Yes, yes. But is that all? He’s not hurt otherwise?’

  ‘No. Only a few bruises, the hospital says.’

  ‘Thank God for that…. What happened, Zephie?’

  ‘We’re not quite sure. It seems like a raid by quite a lot of people. It happened all over the place at once. One man says he was awake, and didn’t hear anything until suddenly there was a noise of breaking glass in all directions. Apparently they threw lighted bottles of something through the windows. Not petrol, he says, something much fiercer. It set off the house, and the flats, and the lab blocks, and some of the staff houses, all at practically the same time.

  ‘The phones wouldn’t work, so Austin got out his car to go and fetch help. He ran into a wire stretched across the drive near the lodge. It wrecked the car and blocked the drive, and poor Austin’s in hospital, too. He’s got a lot of nasty cuts and a broken rib, poor man.

  ‘And dear old Mr Timpson – you remember old Timmy, the watchman? They found his body in the stable yard. The police say he was coshed. A poor old man like that! Only one blow, thank God. He can’t have realized it.

  ‘But it’s all gone, Diana. The house, the labs, the stores, everything but a few of the staff houses. There wasn’t anything anybody could do. By the time they found out what had happened to Austin it was practically all over.

  ‘Daddy managed to drag himself a bit away from the coach-house, or he’d have been buried when it collapsed.’

  ‘Thank God for that,’ said Diana. ‘Have the police any idea who did it?’

  ‘I don’t think so. They told Raikes who has taken charge at Darr for the moment that they “had reason to believe” that it was a gang who came from somewhere else, in a lorry. Raikes said that was a masterly bit of deduction.’

  ‘Zephie, you’re sure your father hasn’t any real injuries?’

  ‘He’s sprained his left wrist a bit, but otherwise we’re as sure as we can be until we see the X-rays. What I’ve been wondering, Diana, is whether it will take him longer to get over it – longer, I mean, than people who don’t have you-know-what?’

  ‘I can’t tell you, Zephie. The wrist’ll take longer to recover, of course, bruises too, and cuts, if there are any. But general shaking, and I suppose a degree of shock, I simply don’t know. I shouldn’t think it would show any noticeable delay. That’s what you’re thinking of?’

  ‘One doesn’t want the doctors to start prying.’

  ‘No, of course. We’ll have to watch that. You will, I mean. Give him my – my very best wishes.’

  ‘I will. By the way, Diana, what’s this about you giving another broadcast tomorrow night? Is it true?’

  ‘Yes. How did you hear?’

  ‘They slipped it in among the announcements before the news this morning. It sounded – what are you going to tell them?’

  ‘All about it, Zephie. If I don’t do it publicly now, I can see them putting me under some kind of subpoena to do it more privately before long. Publicly would be better, I think.’

  ‘But nothing about Daddy?’

  ‘You can ask him, but I think you’ll find he’ll still think his weight will tell more later on – and he’s got more than enough trouble on his hands at the moment.’

  ‘All right. I’ll ask him. And let you know.’

  ‘Very well. And don’t forget to give him – to tell him I –’

  ‘I won’t, Diana. ’Bye.’

  ∗

  Diana searched through the papers for news of the Darr House disaster. Apparently it had come in too late for even the London editions. But there was plenty of reference to the Antigerone. The Times gave it a second leader for the second time, and printed half-a-dozen letters which, though the approaches varied from the drily factual to the verge of superstitious alarm, all conveyed serious anxiety. The Guardian appeared to be torn between a liberal respect for any form of new knowledge, and a statistical lament at the consequences of this one. The Trumpeter had not changed its mind again, but change had crept into its attitude. Though i
ts call for suppression of the ANTI-G was still firm, the purity of emotional response seemed to have been sullied by a tincture of thought. There was no longer quite the same impression that the party had just received the gift of a brand new, twelve-cylinder vote-catcher and crowd-rouser.

  Indeed, in almost all the popular papers some shift of attitude was perceptible, almost as though word had been going round Fleet Street that the Antigerone had potentialities beyond that of increasing the female readership.

  To Diana, the most interesting, and also most gratifying, feature was negative: scarcely anywhere was there a disposition to question the validity of the Antigerone. An omission which, in the circumstances, testified not only to the confidence of Nefertiti’s clients, but to the success they must have had in convincing husbands, friends, and widespread acquaintances. That was far better than she had hoped for. She must, she decided, have underestimated the weakening effect wrought by successive scientific marvels upon popular scepticism; so that where she had expected to find the first barricades there was almost no resistance.

  Nor was engagement Number Two developing along the lines she had expected. True, the Trumpeter, after a false start, had rather taken up a position according to the book, but, so far, at any rate, almost alone. She had envisaged a consolidation of opposing forces – that the clerk, the shop assistant, routine workers of all kinds would discover that the objection of the man at the bench was, this time at least, equally valid in their own circumstances, and hurry to make common cause with him. It puzzled her to decide whether some such consolidation was merely delayed by slow comprehension, or whether she had again overestimated public resistance to discoveries. But, on further consideration, she began to wonder if she had not, certainly as far as the men were concerned, allowed herself to simpify the position too much. She perceived two factors which she had, perhaps, weighed too lightly. One was schizophrenic: resistance to the prospect of a greatly prolonged life of monotonous work was in conflict with the strong personal will to survive at any cost, and had resulted for many in a state of helpless indecision. The other was fatalistic: a feeling that the goings-on of science had got so far beyond ordinary human control, and any new discovery now came so nearly into the category of Act of God, that it was scarcely worth troubling oneself to try to do anything about them.

  Anyway, whatever the causes, Diana could perceive that the fight was not going to be quite the free-for-all she had envisaged, but something more like a large-scale tourney, with a large spectatorship whose favour could be swayed to one side or the other.

  Considering the situation, she decided that her original strategic plan would be assisted rather than hindered by the development.

  Nevertheless, gratifying though an easy victory in Phase One followed by discovery of weaknesses in the enemy forces may be, it plays havoc with a careful timetable. There is an anxious interlude when it is uncertain whether reserves can be brought forward in time to exploit the advantage.

  Reading, however, in each newspaper announcements of various prominence that the Saturday night play on the Home Service would be postponed from nine-fifteen to nine-thirty in order to give Miss Diana Brackley an opportunity of making a statement regarding the Antigerone, she was able to feel that the next phase could now begin…

  ∗

  The lift-doors opened, and a small party stepped out into the hall. First, Diana, in a semi-evening dress of pale grey peau-de-soie, long white gloves, an emerald pendant at her throat, and a light, fur-collared wrap about her shoulders. Behind her, Lucy Brendon and Sarah Tallwyn. The former dressed less strikingly, but also with some air of occasion; the latter in a rather severe dress of dark blue which suited her air of being in charge of proceedings. And last, Ottilie, Diana’s maid, in attendance to see the party off.

  The hall-porter left his desk, and came forward with an air of concern.

  ‘There’s quite a bit of a crowd outside, Miss Brackley,’ he told her. ‘We could put some chairs in one of the vans, and take you out again that way, if you like?’

  Diana glanced through the glass upper panels of the door. The crowd must number nearly a hundred, she judged, predominantly feminine, but with a score or so of men, including two with press cameras. The car, guarded by the under-porter, stood at the kerb, beyond.

  ‘We’re a little late as it is, Sergeant Trant. I think we’ll use the car.’

  ‘Very good, Miss.’ The sergeant crossed the hall to the door, unlocked it, and stepped outside. His gesture to the crowd was quite imperious. After a brief hesitation, it parted reluctantly to leave a narrow lane down the steps and across the pavement.

  ‘Thank goodness we’re only temporary royalty,’ Miss Brendon murmured to Miss Tallwyn. ‘Fancy having to go through this several times a day.’

  The sergeant, after a menacing survey of the crowd which dared it to encroach again, held the door wide. The three ladies, with Diana in the lead, stepped forward, leaving Ottilie hovering anxiously in the hall. Across the pavement, the under-porter who had brought the grey Rolls round, and guarded it, had the door open, ready for her. Lucy caught a voice saying: ‘Forty, they say. Looks like a girl, don’t she?’

  Diana crossed the broad top step, and started down. The two photographers let off their flashes.

  Three loud cracks sounded, fast upon one another.

  Diana staggered, and clutched at her left side. The crowd stood frozen. A red mark appeared below Diana’s hand. Blood trickled out between her white-gloved fingers. A widening patch of scarlet dyed the pale grey silk. Diana took a half-step back, collapsed, and slithered down the steps…

  The photographers’ flashes blinked again…

  The under-porter left the car door, and jumped towards her. The sergeant pushed Lucy Brendon aside, and ran down the steps. Diana lay limp, her eyes closed. The two porters made as if to lift her. But a voice said quietly, with authority.

  ‘Don’t move her.’

  The sergeant looked round to see a youngish man wearing horn-rimmed glases, and a well-cut dark suit.

  ‘I am a doctor,’ he said. ‘You might do harm. Better send for an ambulance at once.’

  He bent over Diana, and picked up her hand to feel her pulse.

  The sergeant ran back up the steps, but found himself forestalled. Ottilie was already at his desk, telephone in hand.

  ‘Ambulance, yes, yes, quick!’ she was saying. ‘That the ambulance? Please come at once to Darlington Mansions – yes, a lady has been shot….’

  She hung up.

  ‘Did you get him?’ she demanded.

  ‘Who?’ asked the sergeant.

  ‘The man who did it,’ Ottilie said impatiently. ‘A little man in a raincoat, with a green felt hat. He was on the left,’ she told him as she made for the door, and ran down the steps to Diana and the doctor.

  The sergeant followed, and looked over the crowd. There was no centre of commotion. The man must have got away before anyone realized what had happened. The doctor, kneeling beside Diana now, looked up.

  ‘Can’t you clear some of these damned people away?’ he asked irritably.

  The two porters began to push the crowd back and make a wider space.

  Diana’s eyes opened. Her lips moved. The doctor bent his head closer to catch what she said. Her eyes closed again. He looked up, frowning anxiously.

  ‘That ambulance –’ he began.

  The sound of its bell interrupted him. It came down the street at speed, and pulled in behind the Rolls. The attendants got out, dragged out a stretcher, and shoved their way through the crowd.

  Half a minute later Diana had been loaded aboard. The doctor and Miss Brendon climbed in after her, and the ambulance went clanging on its way.

  ∗

  At nine-fifteen the Home Service announcer said:

  ‘We regret to announce that the rearrangement of our programmes scheduled for this time will not now take place. Miss Diana Brackley, who was to have spoken about her discovery of the Antigerone, and i
ts significance, at this time, was attacked earlier this evening while on her way to Broadcasting House. Her assailant fired three shots at her. Miss Brackley died in the ambulance on her way to hospital….’

  ∗

  On Sunday afternoon the weather cleared, leaving the pavement of Trafalgar Square damp from the morning’s drizzle. Contingents from various parts had begun to arrive some time ago, and now, with sandwiches eaten and furled banners leant against the lions, were beginning to gather expectantly before the north plinth of the column where a white streamer proclaimed in letters of fluorescent red paint:

  BAN THE ANTI-G

  The contingents of marchers, increased by sympathizers and relatives, formed a good crowd, but not, for a matter of importance and at such a recognized time and place for rallies, a great crowd. Behind and about them strolled the usual London Sunday sightseers, some interested, some curious over anything that might be going on, some seeking company to kill an empty afternoon. Further off, beyond the fountains, the people were closer together again. Most of them were women.

  Three or four young men idled about the plinth rearranging wires, seeing that the loudspeaker tripods were stable, tapping the microphone, and reassuring one another with nods. At last there was a stir at the edge of the supporting crowd. A short broad man, with an escort of several waymakers, worked towards the front, smiling and waving to acknowledge greetings as he came. A number of hands helped him up on to the plinth, and he shook hands with several men who awaited him there. At this moment it occurred to one of the young men that all was not yet perfect respecting the technical arrangements, and there was a slight delay while he impressively swathed a handkerchief round the microphone. That done, the speaker stepped forward amid scattered shouts of welcome and a burst of clapping. He beamed at the crowd, gave several more waves of acknowledgement, then he raised his arms in a quelling gesture. His expression shed all traces of amiability, and became grimly portentous, as he waited for the crowd to take his mood. He lowered his arms, paused, then suddenly raised his right hand, pointing at the streamer stretched above his head.

 
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