Neither one realizes it, but both Mark and Jane will soon find themselves on opposite sides of a secret war for the soul of England.
Jane visits the Manor of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill in hopes that they might help her about her dreams, but her first meeting with Miss Grace Ironwood is not encouraging. Miss Ironwood is a severe, intimidating woman. To Jane’s annoyance, she does not regard her dreams as a problem that needs curing. It’s not that she doesn't take them seriously, (a fear which has kept Jane from discussing her dreams with her husband); Miss Ironwood is convinced that Jane is a clairvoyant and that her dreams are extremely important. She wants Jane to put her talents to the service of her group and that the fate of humanity may depend upon it.
This is all too much for Jane. She doesn't want to get mixed up with vague conspiracies, she just wants the dreams to stop.
Mark, in the meantime, has gone to the town of Belbury, where the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, or the N.I.C.E., is headquartered. His friend, if you want to call him that, Lord Feverstone has arranged a meeting with Wither, the Deputy Director of the N.I.C.E.
The organization’s ostensible purpose is to put the money and resources of Government into the service of Science, and to put the disciplines of Science into the administration of Government. In many respects it sounds like a Charter School experiment placed on a governmental scale. It’s public face is a popular writer of science named Jules, whom most critics take to be a caricature of H.G. Wells. Jules has little to do with the story, though, and Mark quickly learns that he is largely a figurehead.
Mark has always longed to be an Insider, and much of his academic career has been devoted to getting into the In Crowd. At Bracton, this was a party in the faculty calling themselves the “Progressive Element”, but Mark’s acquaintance with Feverstone has revealed secret workings that he had been unaware of, and the lure of being one of the Elect Few who are In The Know is a powerful one.
He meets with Wither, a vague sort of man with a frustrating talent for speaking without saying anything definite. Mark assumes that he is going to be offered a job with the N.I.C.E., but although Wither soothes him with flattery and platitudes, he never says anything specific.
Mark is also introduced to “Fairy” Hardcastle, the tough-talking, cigar-smoking head of the N.I.C.E.’s private Gestapo, that is, security force. Lewis never calls her a lesbian, but he certainly intends her as a mannish, and therefore unnatural woman. Come to think of it, the forbidding Grace Ironwood with her austere manner and her masculine profession (we later find that she really is a doctor, which Lewis would have probably considered a male field) also has mannish qualities, but the Fairy typifies the worst in masculinity: she is crude, vulgar and sadistic and runs her department like a bully. Mark finds himself uncomfortable in her presence, but is impressed by her worldly and knowing attitude and flattered that she seems to be taking an interest in him.
He runs into another Bracton professor, William Hingest. “Bill the Blizzard”, as he’s known behind his back, is one of the few top-notch scientists on the faculty, a chemist with a high reputation among his peers. He’s considered one of the Progressive Element by virtue of being an atheist, although he has little use for academic politics. He too is being recruited by the N.I.C.E., but having looked around the place has decided to return to Bracton. He strongly recommends that Mark do the same.
Hingest is an interesting character, although he sadly gets little time in the story. Some Christians like to say that even atheists believe in something, which atheists regard as condescending and sanctimonious. Which it is. But Hingest at any rate does believe in something: he believes in scientific integrity. He’s seen enough of the N.I.C.E. to realize that these people are only interested in Science as window dressing for their greater agenda, and he wants nothing to do with it.
Mark still isn't sure he wants to join the N.I.C.E. No one will tell him what his job there is supposed to be, or even if he has a job; but they’re plying him with drink and pumping him on what great prospects he has with them. It’s assumed that he’ll spend the night at the Institute, and then that he’ll stay there for a day or two, or more. He finds that Feverstone has done him the favor of burning his bridges behind him at Bracton, which briefly causes him to panic; but the people at the Institute do a masterful job of keeping him off balance, alternating between flattering his ego and ambition, and quietly threatening him with the consequences of leaving. Every step of the way, it becomes easier for him to move forward and more difficult to move back. And so he takes the path of least resistance.
Jane is having problems at home. Her neighbors, her old tutor Dr. Dimble and his wife, have been evicted from their house. It belonged to the college and was part of the sale of land to the N.I.C.E. For the time being, Dr. Dimble can crash at the college, but his wife has to find a place to live. Ivy Maggs, the woman who comes in couple times a week to do cleaning at the Studdock home, has also been displaced, and Jane is having trouble finding a replacement.
A lot of people have been kicked out of their homes. The N.I.C.E. has bought Bragdon Wood, part of the Bracton property, ostensibly to build a new facility there. But the Wood is too marshy to build on. So the Institute is going to divert the river running through Edgestow in order to drain the Wood. A lots of the Edgestow residents are outraged, including members of the College who had voted for the sale, but by the time anyone realizes what is going down, it’s too late to stop it.
Jane has another dream, this time about a group of men stopping a car in the middle of the night and beating its driver to death. The next day she learns that Bill Hingest has been found dead and realizes that it was he whom she saw murdered.
She runs into Camille Dennison, a woman she had met at St. Anne’s, and her husband, who had been a close friend of Mark’s during their undergraduate days. They’re a nice, friendly couple with the rare talent of being able to correct each other without being annoying about it; and Jane takes an immediate liking to them. She wonders why Mark dropped Dennison in favor of his more recent crop of friends who strike her as being back-biting and unpleasant. The truth of the matter is that as Mark became more interested in climbing the greasy pole of faculty politics, he saw Dennison as more of a rival than a friend.
The Dennisons are part of the St. Anne’s group, a small community which has gathered around their leader, a Mr. Fisher-King. Readers with a background in Arthurian Romance will recognize the Fisher-King as a character from the Grail Legend, a king with an unhealing wound which can only be cured by the Holy Grail. Mr. Fisher-King is actually Ransom, from the previous books, who had changed his name for reasons that are somewhat contrived, but largely irrelevant.
They would like Jane to come and speak with Mr. Fisher-King, but they stress that this must be her own decision. This is a big difference between the St. Anne’s group and the N.I.C.E.: the one insists that Jane choose freely, the other uses mind-games and manipulation to force Mark to stay.
Jane’s dream of Hingest’s murder has convinced her that her dreams really are clairvoyant; and the good vibes she gets from the Dennisons do much to counter the earlier negative impression she got from Miss Ironwood. She decides to give St. Anne’s another visit.
Mark is still unsure what his position at the N.I.C.E. is, which is exactly how they like it. Since he’s a sociologist, he’s plopped in the Institute’s sociology department, although Fairy assures him that it’s only temporary and that there are bigger things in store for him. He is given the assignment of writing propaganda pieces. The N.I.C.E. needs to raze a village near Edgestow as part of its project to divert the river, and so Mark is directed to come up with talking points about how the village is unsanitary and unsightly and how better off people will be once the improvements have been installed. Next he is told to work on a series of articles and Letters to the Editor for the popular press to rehabilitate Alcasan, a French scientist who was recently guillotined for murdering his wife. This was the man Jane saw decapitated in her very first dream. Mark doesn't understand why the Institute is interested in Alcasan’s reputation and begins to have doubts about the N.I.C.E.’s politics
“Is it Left or Right papers that are going to print all this rot about Alcasan?”
“Both, honey, both,” said Miss Hardcastle. “Don’t you understand anything? Isn't it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us – to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.”Finally Mark is assigned to write a couple pieces about a riot in Edgestow which hasn't happened yet.. With the displacement of the local population due to the N.I.C.E.’s extreme landscaping and the influx of workers who have come in to tear down the buildings and such, clashes are inevitable, and so the N.I.C.E. are going to engineer a riot in the next day or two that they can use to the Institute’s advantage. Mark is shocked by this, but the fact that they are trusting him with this information makes him feel like he’s part of their inner circle, and he agrees.
There is one hitch, though. In one of his meeting with Wither, it is strongly suggested that Mark bring his wife to Belbury. Mark can’t see Jane being happy with things there and so he kind of brushes off Wither’s hints and is dismayed to learn that his casual refusal has angered Wither. He little realizes that Jane is the real reason the N.I.C.E. cares about him at all;. They know about her dreams and want to use Mark as a tool to get their hands on her.
NEXT: The Pendragon; Riot in Edgestow, and the Saracen’s Head.