It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man. This old man dwells all alone in a very ancient house on Water Street near the sea, and is reputed to be both exceedingly rich and exceedingly feeble; which forms a situation very attractive to men of the profession of Messrs. Ricci, Czanek, and Silva, for that profession was nothing less dignified than robbery.
The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man which generally keep him safe from the attention of gentlemen like Mr. Ricci and his colleagues, despite the almost certain fact that he hides a fortune of
indefinite magnitude somewhere about his musty and venerable abode. He is, in truth, a very strange person, believed to have been a captain of East India clipper ships in his day; so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name. Among the gnarled trees in the front yard of his aged and neglected place he maintains a strange collection of large stones, oddly grouped and painted so that they resemble the idols in some obscure Eastern temple. This collection frightens away most of the small boys who love to taunt the Terrible Old Man about his long white hair and beard, or to break the small-paned windows of his dwelling with wicked missiles; but there are other things which frighten the older and more curious folk who sometimes steal up to the house to peer in through the dusty panes. These folk say that on a table in a bare room on the ground floor are many peculiar bottles, in each a small piece of lead suspended pendulum-wise from a string. And they say that the Terrible Old Man talks to these bottles, addressing them by such names as Jack, Scar-Face, Long Tom, Spanish Joe, Peters, and Mate Ellis, and that whenever he speaks to a bottle the little lead pendulum within makes certain definite vibrations as if in answer. Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.
A short, animated version of “The Terrible Old Man” can be found on Youtube at
|The sky is lead and our faces are red,
And the gates of Hell are opened and riven,
And the winds of Hell are loosened and driven,
And the dust flies up in the face of Heaven,
And the clouds come down in a fiery sheet,
Heavy to raise and hard to be borne.
And the soul of man is turned from his meat,
Turned from the trifles for which he has striven
Sick in his body, and heavy hearted,
And his soul flies up like the dust in the sheet
Breaks from his flesh and is gone and departed,
As the blasts they blow on the cholera-horn.
Four men, each entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer marked—for them—one hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizon—nothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.From time to time clouds of tawny dust rose from the ground without wind or warning, flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again. Then a-whirling dust-devil would scutter across the plain for a couple of miles, break, and fall outward, though there was nothing to check its flight save a long low line of piled railway-sleepers white with the dust, a cluster of huts made of mud, condemned rails, and canvas, and the one squat four-roomed bungalow that belonged to the assistant engineer in charge of a section of the Gaudhari State line then under construction.
The four, stripped to the thinnest of sleeping-suits, played whist crossly, with wranglings as to leads and returns. It was not the best kind of whist, but they had taken some trouble to arrive at it. Mottram of the Indian Survey had ridden thirty and railed one hundred miles from his lonely post in the desert since the night before; Lowndes of the Civil Service, on special duty in the political department, had come as far to escape for an instant the miserable intrigues of an impoverished native State whose king alternately fawned and blustered for more money from the pitiful revenues contributed by hard-wrung peasants and despairing camel-breeders; Spurstow, the doctor of the line, had left a cholera-stricken camp of coolies to look after itself for forty-eight hours while he associated with white men once more. Hummil, the assistant engineer, was the host. He stood fast and received his friends thus every Sunday if they could come in. When one of them failed to appear, he would send a telegram to his last address, in order that he might know whether the defaulter were dead or alive. There are very many places in the East where it is not good or kind to let your acquaintances drop out of sight even for one short week.
The players were not conscious of any special regard for each other. They squabbled whenever they met; but they ardently desired to meet, as men without water desire to drink. They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age—which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.
‘Pilsener?’ said Spurstow, after the second rubber, mopping his forehead.
‘Beer’s out, I’m sorry to say, and there’s hardly enough soda-water for tonight,’ said Hummil.
‘What filthy bad management!’ Spurstow snarled.
‘Can’t help it. I’ve written and wired; but the trains don’t come through regularly yet. Last week the ice ran out—as Lowndes knows.’
‘Glad I didn’t come. I could ha’ sent you some if I had known, though. Phew! it’s too hot to go on playing bumblepuppy.’ This with a savage scowl at Lowndes, who only laughed. He was a hardened offender.
Mottram rose from the table and looked out of a chink in the shutters.
‘What a sweet day!’ said he.
The company yawned all together and betook themselves to an aimless investigation of all Hummil’s possessions—guns, tattered novels, saddlery, spurs, and the like. They had fingered them a score of times before, but there was really nothing else to do.
‘Got anything fresh?’ said Lowndes.
‘Last week’s Gazette of India, and a cutting from a home paper. My father sent it out. It’s rather amusing.’
‘One of those vestrymen that call ’emselves M.P.s again, is it?’ said Spurstow, who read his newspapers when he could get them.
‘Yes. Listen to this. It’s to your address, Lowndes. The man was making a speech to his constituents, and he piled it on. Here’s a sample, “And I assert unhesitatingly that the Civil Service in India is the preserve—the pet preserve—of the aristocracy of England. What does the democracy—what do the masses—get from that country, which we have step by step fraudulently annexed? I answer, nothing whatever. It is farmed with a single eye to their own interests by the scions of the aristocracy. They take good care to maintain their lavish scale of incomes, to avoid or stifle any inquiries into the nature and conduct of their administration, while they themselves force the unhappy peasant to pay with the sweat of his brow for all the luxuries in which they are lapped.”’ Hummil waved the cutting above his head. ‘’Ear! ’ear!’ said his audience.
Then Lowndes, meditatively, ‘I’d give—I’d give three months’ pay to have that gentleman spend one month with me and see how the free and independent native prince works things. Old Timbersides’—this was his flippant title for an honoured and decorated feudatory prince—‘has been wearing my life out this week past for money. By Jove, his latest performance was to send me one of his women as a bribe!’
‘Good for you! Did you accept it?’ said Mottram.
‘No. I rather wish I had, now. She was a pretty little person, and she yarned away to me about the horrible destitution among the king’s women-folk. The darlings haven’t had any new clothes for nearly a month, and the old man wants to buy a new drag from Calcutta—solid silver railings and silver lamps, and trifles of that kind. I’ve tried to make him understand that he has played the deuce with the revenues for the last twenty years and must go slow. He can’t see it.’
‘But he has the ancestral treasure-vaults to draw on. There must be three millions at least in jewels and coin under his palace,’ said Hummil.
‘Catch a native king disturbing the family treasure! The priests forbid it except as the last resort. Old Timbersides has added something like a quarter of a million to the deposit in his reign.’
‘Where the mischief does it all come from?’ said Mottram.
‘The country. The state of the people is enough to make you sick. I’ve known the taxmen wait by a milch-camel till the foal was born and then hurry off the mother for arrears. And what can I do? I can’t get the court clerks to give me any accounts; I can’t raise anything more than a fat smile from the commander-in-chief when I find out the troops are three months in arrears; and old Timbersides begins to weep when I speak to him. He has taken to the King’s Peg heavily, liqueur brandy for whisky, and Heidsieck for soda-water.’
‘That’s what the Rao of Jubela took to. Even a native can’t last long at that,’ said Spurstow. ‘He’ll go out.’
‘And a good thing, too. Then I suppose we’ll have a council of regency, and a tutor for the young prince, and hand him back his kingdom with ten years’ accumulations.’
‘Whereupon that young prince, having been taught all the vices of the English, will play ducks and drakes with the money and undo ten years’ work in eighteen months. I’ve seen that business before,’ said Spurstow. ‘I should tackle the king with a light hand if I were you, Lowndes. They’ll hate you quite enough under any circumstances.
‘That’s all very well. The man who looks on can talk about the light hand; but you can’t clean a pig-sty with a pen dipped in rose-water. I know my risks; but nothing has happened yet. My servant’s an old Pathan, and he cooks for me. They are hardly likely to bribe him, and I don’t accept food from my true friends, as they call themselves. Oh, but it’s weary work! I’d sooner be with you, Spurstow. There’s shooting near your camp.’
‘Would you? I don’t think it. About fifteen deaths a day don’t incite a man to shoot anything but himself. And the worst of it is that the poor devils look at you as though you ought to save them. Lord knows, I’ve tried everything. My last attempt was empirical, but it pulled an old man through. He was brought to me apparently past hope, and I gave him gin and Worcester sauce with cayenne. It cured him; but I don’t recommend it.’
‘How do the cases run generally?’ said Hummil.
‘Very simply indeed. Chlorodyne, opium pill, chlorodyne, collapse, nitre, bricks to the feet, and then—the burning-ghaut. The last seems to be the only thing that stops the trouble. It’s black cholera, you know. Poor devils! But, I will say, little Bunsee Lal, my apothecary, works like a demon. I’ve recommended him for promotion if he comes through it all alive.’
‘And what are your chances, old man?’ said Mottram.
‘Don’t know; don’t care much; but I’ve sent the letter in. What are you doing with yourself generally?’
‘Sitting under a table in the tent and spitting on the sextant to keep it cool,’ said the man of the survey. ‘Washing my eyes to avoid ophthalmia, which I shall certainly get, and trying to make a sub-surveyor understand that an error of five degrees in an angle isn’t quite so small as it looks. I’m altogether alone, y’ know, and shall be till the end of the hot weather.’
‘Hummil’s the lucky man,’ said Lowndes, flinging himself into a long chair. ‘He has an actual roof-torn as to the ceiling-cloth, but still a roof-over his head. He sees one train daily. He can get beer and soda-water and ice ’em when God is good. He has books, pictures—they were torn from the Graphic—and the society of the excellent sub-contractor Jevins, besides the pleasure of receiving us weekly.’
Hummil smiled grimly. ‘Yes, I’m the lucky man, I suppose. Jevins is luckier.’
‘Yes. Went out. Last Monday.’
‘By his own hand?’ said Spurstow quickly, hinting the suspicion that was in everybody’s mind. There was no cholera near Hummil’s section. Even fever gives a man at least a week’s grace, and sudden death generally implied self-slaughter.
‘I judge no man this weather,’ said Hummil. ‘He had a touch of the sun, I fancy; for last week, after you fellows had left, he came into the verandah and told me that he was going home to see his wife, in Market Street, Liverpool, that evening.
‘I got the apothecary in to look at him, and we tried to make him lie down. After an hour or two he rubbed his eyes and said he believed he had had a fit, hoped he hadn’t said anything rude. Jevins had a great idea of bettering himself socially. He was very like Chucks in his language.’
‘Then he went to his own bungalow and began cleaning a rifle. He told the servant that he was going to shoot buck in the morning. Naturally he fumbled with the trigger, and shot himself through the head—accidentally. The apothecary sent in a report to my chief; and Jevins is buried somewhere out there. I’d have wired to you, Spurstow, if you could have done anything.’
‘You’re a queer chap,’ said Mottram. ‘If you’d killed the man yourself you couldn’t have been more quiet about the business.’
‘Good Lord! what does it matter?’ said Hummil calmly. ‘I’ve got to do a lot of his overseeing work in addition to my own. I’m the only person that suffers. Jevins is out of it, by pure accident, of course, but out of it. The apothecary was going to write a long screed on suicide. Trust a babu to drivel when he gets the chance.’
‘Why didn’t you let it go in as suicide?’ said Lowndes.
‘No direct proof. A man hasn’t many privileges in his country, but he might at least be allowed to mishandle his own rifle. Besides, some day I may need a man to smother up an accident to myself. Live and let live. Die and let die.’
‘You take a pill,’ said Spurstow, who had been watching Hummil’s white face narrowly. ‘Take a pill, and don’t be an ass. That sort of talk is skittles. Anyhow, suicide is shirking your work. If I were Job ten times over, I should be so interested in what was going to happen next that I’d stay on and watch.’
‘Ah! I’ve lost that curiosity,’ said Hummil.
‘Liver out of order?’ said Lowndes feelingly.
‘No. Can’t sleep. That’s worse.’
‘By Jove, it is!’ said Mottram. ‘I’m that way every now and then, and the fit has to wear itself out. What do you take for it?’
‘Nothing. What’s the use? I haven’t had ten minutes’ sleep since Friday morning.’
‘Poor chap! Spurstow, you ought to attend to this,’ said Mottram. ‘Now you mention it, your eyes are rather gummy and swollen.’
Spurstow, still watching Hummil, laughed lightly. ‘I’ll patch him up, later on. Is it too hot, do you think, to go for a ride?’
‘Where to?’ said Lowndes wearily. ‘We shall have to go away at eight, and there’ll be riding enough for us then. I hate a horse when I have to use him as a necessity. Oh, heavens! what is there to do?’
‘Begin whist again, at chick points [‘a chick’ is supposed to be eight shillings] and a gold mohur on the rub,’ said Spurstow promptly.
‘Poker. A month’s pay all round for the pool—no limit—and fifty-rupee raises. Somebody would be broken before we got up,’ said Lowndes.
‘Can’t say that it would give me any pleasure to break any man in this company,’ said Mottram. ‘There isn’t enough excitement in it, and it’s foolish.’ He crossed over to the worn and battered little camp-piano—wreckage of a married household that had once held the bungalow—and opened the case.
‘It’s used up long ago,’ said Hummil. ‘The servants have picked it to pieces.’
The piano was indeed hopelessly out of order, but Mottram managed to bring the rebellious notes into a sort of agreement, and there rose from the ragged keyboard something that might once have been the ghost of a popular music-hall song. The men in the long chairs turned with evident interest as Mottram banged the more lustily.
‘That’s good!’ said Lowndes. ‘By Jove! the last time I heard that song was in ’79, or thereabouts, just before I came out.’
‘Ah!’ said Spurstow with pride, ‘I was home in ‘80.’ And he mentioned a song of the streets popular at that date.
Mottram executed it roughly. Lowndes criticized and volunteered emendations. Mottram dashed into another ditty, not of the music-hall character, and made as if to rise.
‘Sit down,’ said Hummil. ‘I didn’t know that you had any music in your composition. Go on playing until you can’t think of anything more. I’ll have that piano tuned up before you come again. Play something festive.’
Very simple indeed were the tunes to which Mottram’s art and the limitations of the piano could give effect, but the men listened with pleasure, and in the pauses talked all together of what they had seen or heard when they were last at home. A dense dust-storm sprung up outside, and swept roaring over the house, enveloping it in the choking darkness of midnight, but Mottram continued unheeding, and the crazy tinkle reached the ears of the listeners above the flapping of the tattered ceiling-cloth.
In the silence after the storm he glided from the more directly personal songs of Scotland, half humming them as he played, into the Evening Hymn.
‘Sunday,’ said he, nodding his head.
‘Go on. Don’t apologize for it,’ said Spurstow.
Hummil laughed long and riotously. ‘Play it, by all means. You’re full of surprises today. I didn’t know you had such a gift of finished sarcasm. How does that thing go?’
Mottram took up the tune.
‘Too slow by half. You miss the note of gratitude,’ said Hummil. ‘It ought to go to the “Grasshopper’s Polka”—this way.’ And he chanted, prestissimo,
‘Glory to thee, my God, this night, For all the blessings of the light.
That shows we really feel our blessings. How does it go on?—
If in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with sacred thoughts supply; May no ill dreams disturb my rest,—
Or powers of darkness me molest!’
‘Bah! what an old hypocrite you are!’
‘Don’t be an ass,’ said Lowndes. ‘You are at full liberty to make fun of anything else you like, but leave that hymn alone. It’s associated in my mind with the most sacred recollections——’
‘Summer evenings in the country, stained-glass window, light going out, and you and she jamming your heads together over one hymnbook,’ said Mottram.
‘Yes, and a fat old cockchafer hitting you in the eye when you walked home. Smell of hay, and a moon as big as a bandbox sitting on the top of a haycock; bats, roses, milk and midges,’ said Lowndes.
‘Also mothers. I can just recollect my mother singing me to sleep with that when I was a little chap,’ said Spurstow.
The darkness had fallen on the room. They could hear Hummil squirming in his chair.
‘Consequently,’ said he testily, ‘you sing it when you are seven fathom deep in Hell! It’s an insult to the intelligence of the Deity to pretend we’re anything but tortured rebels.’
‘Take two pills,’ said Spurstow; ‘that’s tortured liver.’
‘The usually placid Hummil is in a vile bad temper. I’m sorry for his coolies tomorrow,’ said Lowndes, as the servants brought in the lights and prepared the table for dinner.
As they were settling into their places about the miserable goat-chops, and the smoked tapioca pudding, Spurstow took occasion to whisper to Mottram, ‘Well done, David!’
‘Look after Saul, then,’ was the reply.
‘What are you two whispering about?’ said Hummil suspiciously.
‘Only saying that you are a damned poor host. This fowl can’t be cut,’ returned Spurstow with a sweet smile. ‘Call this a dinner?’
‘I can’t help it. You don’t expect a banquet, do you?’
Throughout that meal Hummil contrived laboriously to insult directly and pointedly all his guests in succession, and at each insult Spurstow kicked the aggrieved persons under the table; but he dared not exchange a glance of intelligence with either of them. Hummil’s face was white and pinched, while his eyes were unnaturally large. No man dreamed for a moment of resenting his savage personalities, but as soon as the meal was over they made haste to get away.
‘Don’t go. You’re just getting amusing, you fellows. I hope I haven’t said anything that annoyed you. You’re such touchy devils.’ Then, changing the note into one of almost abject entreaty, Hummil added, ‘I say, you surely aren’t going?’
‘In the language of the blessed Jorrocks, where I dines I sleeps,’ said Spurstow. ‘I want to have a look at your coolies tomorrow, if you don’t mind. You can give me a place to lie down in, I suppose?’
The others pleaded the urgency of their several duties next day, and, saddling up, departed together, Hummil begging them to come next Sunday. As they jogged off, Lowndes unbosomed himself to Mottram—
‘. . . And I never felt so like kicking a man at his own table in my life. He said I cheated at whist, and reminded me I was in debt! ’Told you you were as good as a liar to your face! You aren’t half indignant enough over it.’
‘Not I,’ said Mottram. ‘Poor devil! Did you ever know old Hummy behave like that before or within a hundred miles of it?’
‘That’s no excuse. Spurstow was hacking my shin all the time, so I kept a hand on myself. Else I should have—’
‘No, you wouldn’t. You’d have done as Hummy did about Jevins; judge no man this weather. By Jove! the buckle of my bridle is hot in my hand! Trot out a bit, and ‘ware rat-holes.’ Ten minutes’ trotting jerked out of Lowndes one very sage remark when he pulled up, sweating from every pore—
“Good thing Spurstow’s with him tonight.’
‘Ye-es. Good man, Spurstow. Our roads turn here. See you again next Sunday, if the sun doesn’t bowl me over.’
‘S’pose so, unless old Timbersides’ finance minister manages to dress some of my food. Goodnight, and—God bless you!’
‘What’s wrong now?’
‘Oh, nothing.’ Lowndes gathered up his whip, and, as he flicked Mottram’s mare on the flank, added, ‘You’re not a bad little chap, that’s all.’ And the mare bolted half a mile across the sand, on the word.
In the assistant engineer’s bungalow Spurstow and Hummil smoked the pipe of silence together, each narrowly watching the other. The capacity of a bachelor’s establishment is as elastic as its arrangements are simple. A servant cleared away the dining-room table, brought in a couple of rude native bedsteads made of tape strung on a light wood frame, flung a square of cool Calcutta matting over each, set them side by side, pinned two towels to the punkah so that their fringes should just sweep clear of the sleeper’s nose and mouth, and announced that the couches were ready.
The men flung themselves down, ordering the punkah-coolies by all the powers of Hell to pull. Every door and window was shut, for the outside air was that of an oven. The atmosphere within was only 104 degrees, as the thermometer bore witness, and heavy with the foul smell of badly-trimmed kerosene lamps; and this stench, combined with that of native tobacco, baked brick, and dried earth, sends the heart of many a strong man down to his boots, for it is the smell of the Great Indian Empire when she turns herself for six months into a house of torment. Spurstow packed his pillows craftily so that he reclined rather than lay, his head at a safe elevation above his feet. It is not good to sleep on a low pillow in the hot weather if you happen to be of thick-necked build, for you may pass with lively snores and gugglings from natural sleep into the deep slumber of heat-apoplexy.
‘Pack your pillows,’ said the doctor sharply, as he saw Hummil preparing to lie down at full length.
The night-light was trimmed; the shadow of the punkah wavered across the room, and the ‘flick ‘ of the punkah-towel and the soft whine of the rope through the wall-hole followed it. Then the punkah flagged, almost ceased. The sweat poured from Spurstow’s brow. Should he go out and harangue the coolie? It started forward again with a savage jerk, and a pin came out of the towels. When this was replaced, a tomtom in the coolie-lines began to beat with the steady throb of a swollen artery inside some brain-fevered skull. Spurstow turned on his side and swore gently. There was no movement on Hummil’s part. The man had composed himself as rigidly as a corpse, his hands clinched at his sides. The respiration was too hurried for any suspicion of sleep. Spurstow looked at the set face. The jaws were clinched, and there was a pucker round the quivering eyelids.
‘He’s holding himself as tightly as ever he can,’ thought Spurstow. ‘What in the world is the matter with him?—Hummil!’
‘Yes,’ in a thick constrained voice.
‘Can’t you get to sleep?’
‘Head hot? Throat feeling bulgy? or how?’
‘Neither, thanks. I don’t sleep much, you know.’
‘’Feel pretty bad?’
‘Pretty bad, thanks. There is a tomtom outside, isn’t there? I thought it was my head at first…. Oh, Spurstow, for pity’s sake give me something that will put me asleep, sound asleep, if it’s only for six hours!’ He sprang up, trembling from head to foot. ‘I haven’t been able to sleep naturally for days, and I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!’
‘Poor old chap!’
‘That’s no use. Give me something to make me sleep. I tell you I’m nearly mad. I don’t know what I say half my time. For three weeks I’ve had to think and spell out every word that has come through my lips before I dared say it. Isn’t that enough to drive a man mad? I can’t see things correctly now, and I’ve lost my sense of touch. My skin aches—my skin aches! Make me sleep. Oh, Spurstow, for the love of God make me sleep sound. It isn’t enough merely to let me dream. Let me sleep!’
‘All right, old man, all right. Go slow; you aren’t half as bad as you think.’
The flood-gates of reserve once broken, Hummil was clinging to him like a frightened child. ‘You’re pinching my arm to pieces.’
‘I’ll break your neck if you don’t do something for me. No, I didn’t mean that. Don’t be angry, old fellow.’ He wiped the sweat off himself as he fought to regain composure. ‘I’m a bit restless and off my oats, and perhaps you could recommend some sort of sleeping mixture—bromide of potassium.’
‘Bromide of skittles! Why didn’t you tell me this before? Let go of my arm, and I’ll see if there’s anything in my cigarette-case to suit your complaint.’ Spurstow hunted among his day-clothes, turned up the lamp, opened a little silver cigarette-case, and advanced on the expectant Hummil with the daintiest of fairy squirts.
‘The last appeal of civilization,’ said he, ’and a thing I hate to use. Hold out your arm. Well, your sleeplessness hasn’t ruined your muscle; and what a thick hide it is! Might as well inject a buffalo subcutaneously. Now in a few minutes the morphia will begin working. Lie down and wait.’
A smile of unalloyed and idiotic delight began to creep over Hummil’s face. ‘I think,’ he whispered,—‘I think I’m going off now. Gad! it’s positively heavenly! Spurstow, you must give me that case to keep; you——’ The voice ceased as the head fell back.
‘Not for a good deal,’ said Spurstow to the unconscious form. ‘And now, my friend, sleeplessness of your kind being very apt to relax the moral fibre in little matters of life and death, I’ll just take the liberty of spiking your guns.’
He paddled into Hummil’s saddle-room in his bare feet and uncased a twelve-bore rifle, an express, and a revolver. Of the first he unscrewed the nipples and hid them in the bottom of a saddlery-case; of the second he abstracted the lever, kicking it behind a big wardrobe. The third he merely opened, and knocked the doll-head bolt of the grip up with the heel of a riding-boot.
‘That’s settled,’ he said, as he shook the sweat off his hands. ‘These little precautions will at least give you time to turn. You have too much sympathy with gun-room accidents.’
And as he rose from his knees, the thick muffled voice of Hummil cried in the doorway, ‘You fool!’
Such tones they use who speak in the lucid intervals of delirium to their friends a little before they die.
Spurstow started, dropping the pistol. Hummil stood in the doorway, rocking with helpless laughter.
‘That was awf’ly good of you, I’m sure,’ he said, very slowly, feeling for his words. ‘I don’t intend to go out by my own hand at present. I say, Spurstow, that stuff won’t work. What shall I do? What shall I do?’ And panic terror stood in his eyes.
‘Lie down and give it a chance. Lie down at once.’
‘I daren’t. It will only take me half-way again, and I shan’t be able to get away this time. Do you know it was all I could do to come out just now? Generally I am as quick as lightning; but you had clogged my feet. I was nearly caught.’
‘Oh yes, I understand. Go and lie down.’
‘No, it isn’t delirium; but it was an awfully mean trick to play on me. Do you know I might have died?’
As a sponge rubs a slate clean, so some power unknown to Spurstow had wiped out of Hummil’s face all that stamped it for the face of a man, and he stood at the doorway in the expression of his lost innocence. He had slept back into terrified childhood.
‘Is he going to die on the spot?’ thought Spurstow. Then, aloud, ‘All right, my son. Come back to bed, and tell me all about it. You couldn’t sleep; but what was all the rest of the nonsense?’
‘A place, a place down there,’ said Hummil, with simple sincerity. The drug was acting on him by waves, and he was flung from the fear of a strong man to the fright of a child as his nerves gathered sense or were dulled.
‘Good God! I’ve been afraid of it for months past, Spurstow. It has made every night hell to me; and yet I’m not conscious of having done anything wrong.’
‘Be still, and I’ll give you another dose. We’ll stop your nightmares, you unutterable idiot!’
‘Yes, but you must give me so much that I can’t get away. You must make me quite sleepy, not just a little sleepy. It’s so hard to run then.’
‘I know it; I know it. I’ve felt it myself. The symptoms are exactly as you describe.’
‘Oh, don’t laugh at me, confound you! Before this awful sleeplessness came to me I’ve tried to rest on my elbow and put a spur in the bed to sting me when I fell back. Look!’
‘By Jove! the man has been rowelled like a horse! Ridden by the nightmare with a vengeance! And we all thought him sensible enough. Heaven send us understanding! You like to talk, don’t you?’
‘Yes, sometimes. Not when I’m frightened. Then I want to run. Don’t you?’
‘Always. Before I give you your second dose try to tell me exactly what your trouble is.’
Hummil spoke in broken whispers for nearly ten minutes, whilst Spurstow looked into the pupils of his eyes and passed his hand before them once or twice.
At the end of the narrative the silver cigarette-case was produced, and the last words that Hummil said as he fell back for the second time were, ‘Put me quite to sleep; for if I’m caught I die, I die!’
‘Yes, yes; we all do that sooner or later, thank Heaven who has set a term to our miseries,’ said Spurstow, settling the cushions under the head. ‘It occurs to me that unless I drink something I shall go out before my time. I’ve stopped sweating, and—I wear a seventeen-inch collar.’ He brewed himself scalding hot tea, which is an excellent remedy against heat-apoplexy if you take three or four cups of it in time. Then he watched the sleeper.
‘A blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes, a blind face that chases him down corridors! H’m! Decidedly, Hummil ought to go on leave as soon as possible; and, sane or otherwise, he undoubtedly did rowel himself most cruelly. Well, Heaven send us understanding!’
At mid-day Hummil rose, with an evil taste in his mouth, but an unclouded eye and a joyful heart.
‘I was pretty bad last night, wasn’t I?’ said he.
‘I have seen healthier men. You must have had a touch of the sun. Look here: if I write you a swinging medical certificate, will you apply for leave on the spot?’
‘Why not? You want it.’
‘Yes, but I can hold on till the weather’s a little cooler.’
‘Why should you, if you can get relieved on the spot?’
‘Burkett is the only man who could be sent; and he’s a born fool.’
‘Oh, never mind about the line. You aren’t so important as all that. Wire for leave, if necessary.’
Hummil looked very uncomfortable.
‘I can hold on till the Rains,’ he said evasively.
‘You can’t. Wire to headquarters for Burkett.’
‘I won’t. If you want to know why, particularly, Burkett is married, and his wife’s just had a kid, and she’s up at Simla, in the cool, and Burkett has a very nice billet that takes him into Simla from Saturday to Monday. That little woman isn’t at all well. If Burkett was transferred she’d try to follow him. If she left the baby behind she’d fret herself to death. If she came—and Burkett’s one of those selfish little beasts who are always talking about a wife’s place being with her husband—she’d die. It’s murder to bring a woman here just now. Burkett hasn’t the physique of a rat. If he came here he’d go out; and I know she hasn’t any money, and I’m pretty sure she’d go out too. I’m salted in a sort of way, and I’m not married. Wait till the Rains, and then Burkett can get thin down here. It’ll do him heaps of good.’
‘Do you mean to say that you intend to face—what you have faced, till the Rains break?’
‘Oh, it won’t be so bad, now you’ve shown me a way out of it. I can always wire to you. Besides, now I’ve once got into the way of sleeping, it’ll be all right. Anyhow, I shan’t put in for leave. That’s the long and the short of it.’
‘My great Scott! I thought all that sort of thing was dead and done with.’
‘Bosh! You’d do the same yourself. I feel a new man, thanks to that cigarette-case. You’re going over to camp now, aren’t you?’
‘Yes; but I’ll try to look you up every other day, if I can.’
‘I’m not bad enough for that. I don’t want you to bother. Give the coolies gin and ketchup.’
‘Then you feel all right?’
‘Fit to fight for my life, but not to stand out in the sun talking to you. Go along, old man, and bless you!’
Hummil turned on his heel to face the echoing desolation of his bungalow, and the first thing he saw standing in the verandah was the figure of himself. He had met a similar apparition once before, when he was suffering from overwork and the strain of the hot weather.
‘This is bad—already,’ he said, rubbing his eyes. ‘If the thing slides away from me all in one piece, like a ghost, I shall know it is only my eyes and stomach that are out of order. If it walks—my head is going.’
He approached the figure, which naturally kept at an unvarying distance from him, as is the use of all spectres that are born of overwork. It slid through the house and dissolved into swimming specks within the eyeball as soon as it reached the burning light of the garden. Hummil went about his business till even. When he came in to dinner he found himself sitting at the table. The vision rose and walked out hastily. Except that it cast no shadow it was in all respects real.
No living man knows what that week held for Hummil. An increase of the epidemic kept Spurstow in camp among the coolies, and all he could do was to telegraph to Mottram, bidding him go to the bungalow and sleep there. But Mottram was forty miles away from the nearest telegraph, and knew nothing of anything save the needs of the survey till he met, early on Sunday morning, Lowndes and Spurstow heading towards Hummil’s for the weekly gathering.
‘Hope the poor chap’s in a better temper,’ said the former, swinging himself off his horse at the door. ‘I suppose he isn’t up yet.’
‘I’ll just have a look at him,’ said the doctor. ‘If he’s asleep there’s no need to wake him.’
And an instant later, by the tone of Spurstow’s voice calling upon them to enter, the men knew what had happened. There was no need to wake him.
The punkah was still being pulled over the bed, but Hummil had departed this life at least three hours.
The body lay on its back, hands clinched by the side, as Spurstow had seen it lying seven nights previously. In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen.
Mottram, who had entered behind Lowndes, bent over the dead and touched the forehead lightly with his lips. ‘Oh, you lucky, lucky devil!’ he whispered.
But Lowndes had seen the eyes, and withdrew shuddering to the other side of the room.
‘Poor chap! poor old chap! And the last time I met him I was angry. Spurstow, we should have watched him. Has he——?’
Deftly Spurstow continued his investigations, ending by a search round the room.
‘No, he hasn’t,’ he snapped. ‘There’s no trace of anything. Call the servants.’
They came, eight or ten of them, whispering and peering over each other’s shoulders.
‘When did your Sahib go to bed?’ said Spurstow.
‘At eleven or ten, we think,’ said Hummil’s personal servant.
‘He was well then? But how should you know?’
‘He was not ill, as far as our comprehension extended. But he had slept very little for three nights. This I know, because I saw him walking much, and specially in the heart of the night.’
As Spurstow was arranging the sheet, a big straight-necked hunting-spur tumbled on the ground. The doctor groaned. The personal servant peeped at the body.
‘What do you think, Chuma?’ said Spurstow, catching the look on the dark face.
‘Heaven-born, in my poor opinion, this that was my master has descended into the Dark Places, and there has been caught because he was not able to escape with sufficient speed. We have the spur for evidence that he fought with Fear. Thus have I seen men of my race do with thorns when a spell was laid upon them to overtake them in their sleeping hours and they dared not sleep.’
‘Chuma, you’re a mud-head. Go out and prepare seals to be set on the Sahib’s property.’
‘God has made the Heaven-born. God has made me. Who are we, to enquire into the dispensations of God? I will bid the other servants hold aloof while you are reckoning the tale of the Sahib’s property. They are all thieves, and would steal.’
‘As far as I can make out, he died from—oh, anything; stoppage of the heart’s action, heat-apoplexy, or some other visitation,’ said Spurstow to his companions. ‘We must make an inventory of his effects, and so on.’
‘He was scared to death,’ insisted Lowndes. ‘Look at those eyes! For pity’s sake don’t let him be buried with them open!’
‘Whatever it was, he’s clear of all the trouble now,’ said Mottram softly.
Spurstow was peering into the open eyes.
‘Come here,’ said he. ‘Can you see anything there?’
‘I can’t face it!’ whimpered Lowndes. ‘Cover up the face! Is there any fear on earth that can turn a man into that likeness? It’s ghastly. Oh, Spurstow, cover it up!’
‘No fear—on earth,’ said Spurstow. Mottram leaned over his shoulder and looked intently.
‘I see nothing except some grey blurs in the pupil. There can be nothing there, you know.’
‘Even so. Well, let’s think. It’ll take half a day to knock up any sort of coffin; and he must have died at midnight. Lowndes, old man, go out and tell the coolies to break ground next to Jevins’s grave. Mottram, go round the house with Chuma and see that the seals are put on things. Send a couple of men to me here, and I’ll arrange.’
The strong-armed servants when they returned to their own kind told a strange story of the doctor Sahib vainly trying to call their master back to life by magic arts—to wit, the holding of a little green box that clicked to each of the dead man’s eyes, and of a bewildered muttering on the part of the doctor Sahib, who took the little green box away with him.
The resonant hammering of a coffin-lid is no pleasant thing to hear, but those who have experience maintain that much more terrible is the soft swish of the bed-linen, the reeving and unreeving of the bed-tapes, when he who has fallen by the roadside is apparelled for burial, sinking gradually as the tapes are tied over, till the swaddled shape touches the floor and there is no protest against the indignity of hasty disposal.
At the last moment Lowndes was seized with scruples of conscience. ‘Ought you to read the service, from beginning to end?’ said he to Spurstow.
‘I intend to. You’re my senior as a civilian. You can take it if you like.’
‘I didn’t mean that for a moment. I only thought if we could get a chaplain from somewhere, I’m willing to ride anywhere, and give poor Hummil a better chance. That’s all.’
‘Bosh!’ said Spurstow, as he framed his lips to the tremendous words that stand at the head of the burial service.
After breakfast they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead. Then Spurstow said absently—
‘Tisn’t medical science.’
‘Things in a dead man’s eye.’
‘For goodness’ sake leave that horror alone!’ said Lowndes. ‘I’ve seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know what killed Hummil.’
‘The deuce you do! I’m going to try to see.’ And the doctor retreated into the bathroom with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white indeed.
‘Have you got a picture?’ said Mottram. ‘What does the thing look like?’
‘It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible.’
‘That,’ said Lowndes, very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, ‘is a damned lie.’
Mottram laughed uneasily. ‘Spurstow’s right,’ he said. ‘We’re all in such a state now that we’d believe anything. For pity’s sake let’s try to be rational.’
There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare. ‘We’d better go on that,’ said Spurstow. ‘Go back to work. I’ve written my certificate. We can’t do any more good here, and work’ll keep our wits together. Come on.’
No one moved. It is not pleasant to face railway journeys at mid-day in June. Spurstow gathered up his hat and whip, and, turning in the doorway, said—
‘There may be Heaven—there must be Hell.Meantime, there is our life here. We-ell?’
Neither Mottram nor Lowndes had any answer to the question.
Through the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
Past the wan-mooned abysses of night,
I have lived o’er my lives without number,
I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.
I have whirled with the earth at the dawning,
When the sky was a vaporous flame;
I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim,
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, without knowledge or lustre or name.
I had drifted o’er seas without ending,
Under sinister grey-clouded skies,
That the many-forked lightning is rending,
That resound with hysterical cries;
With the moans of invisible daemons, that out of the green waters rise.
I have plunged like a deer through the arches
Of the hoary primoridal grove,
Where the oaks feel the presence that marches,
And stalks on where no spirit dares rove,
And I flee from a thing that surrounds me, and leers through dead branches above.
I have stumbled by cave-ridden mountains
That rise barren and bleak from the plain,
I have drunk of the fog-foetid fountains
That ooze down to the marsh and the main;
And in hot cursed tarns I have seen things, I care not to gaze on again.
I have scanned the vast ivy-clad palace,
I have trod its untenanted hall,
Where the moon rising up from the valleys
Shows the tapestried things on the wall;
Strange figures discordantly woven, that I cannot endure to recall.
I have peered from the casements in wonder
At the mouldering meadows around,
At the many-roofed village laid under
The curse of a grave-girdled ground;
And from rows of white urn-carven marble, I listen intently for sound.
I have haunted the tombs of the ages,
I have flown on the pinions of fear,
Where the smoke-belching Erebus rages;
Where the jokulls loom snow-clad and drear:
And in realms where the sun of the desert consumes what it never can cheer.
I was old when the pharaohs first mounted
The jewel-decked throne by the Nile;
I was old in those epochs uncounted
When I, and I only, was vile;
And Man, yet untainted and happy, dwelt in bliss on the far Arctic isle.
Oh, great was the sin of my spirit,
And great is the reach of its doom;
Not the pity of Heaven can cheer it,
Nor can respite be found in the tomb:
Down the infinite aeons come beating the wings of unmerciful gloom.
Through the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber,
Past the wan-mooned abysses of night,
I have lived o’er my lives without number,
I have sounded all things with my sight;
And I struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright.
RED is the color of blood, and I will seek it:
I have sought it in the grass.
It is the color of steep sun seen through eyelids.
It is hidden under the suave flesh of women–
Flows there, quietly flows.
It mounts from the heart to the temples, the singing
As cold sap climbs to the rose.
I am confused in webs and knots of scarlet
Spun from the darkness;
Or shuttled from the mouths of thirsty spiders.
Madness for red! I devour the leaves of autumn.
I tire of the green of the world.
I am myself a mouth for blood …
Here, in the golden haze of the late slant sun,
Let us walk, with the light in our eyes,
To a single bench from the outset predetermined.
Look: there are seagulls in these city skies,
Kindled against the blue.
But I do not think of the seagulls, I think of you.
Your eyes, with the late sun in them,
Are like blue pools dazzled with yellow petals.
This pale green suits them well.
Here is your finger, with an emerald on it:
The one I gave you. I say these things politely–
But what I think beneath them, who can tell?
For I think of you, crumpled against a whiteness;
Flayed and torn, with a dulled face.
I think of you, writing, a thing of scarlet,
And myself, rising red from that embrace.
November sun is sunlight poured through honey:
Old things, in such a light, grow subtle and fine.
Bare oaks are like still fire.
Talk to me: now we drink the evening’s wine.
Look, how our shadows creep along the grave!–
And this way, how the gravel begins to shine!
This is the time of day for recollections,
For sentimental regrets, oblique allusions,
Rose-leaves, shrivelled in a musty jar.
Scatter them to the wind! There are tempests coming.
It is dark, with a windy star.
If human mouths were really roses, my dear,–
(Why must we link things so?–)
I would tear yours petal by petal with slow murder.
I would pluck the stamens, the pistils,
The gold and the green,–
Spreading the subtle sweetness that was your breath
On a cold wave of death….
Now let us walk back, slowly, as we came.
We will light the room with candles; they may shine
Like rows of yellow eyes.
Your hair is like spun fire, by candle-flame.
You smile at me–say nothing. You are wise.
For I think of you, flung down brutal darkness;
Crushed and red, with pale face.
I think of you, with your hair disordered and dripping.
And myself, rising red from that embrace.
This poem is from Gothic Romantic Poetry, which adds this note about Conrad Aiken:
“Conrad Aiken came from a wealthy, and well known family who were from New England but moved to Savannah, Georgia. His father was a respected physician and surgeon however for no apparent reason Conrad’s father
suddenly seemed to change his temperament and became difficult to get on with and violent. Then early in the morning of February 27, 1901, he murdered his wife and shot himself. Conrad (who was eleven years old) heard the gunshots and discovered the bodies. After this tragedy he was raised by his great-great-aunt in Massachusetts.
“To read more about the life of Conrad Aiken read his autobiographical novel Ushant (1952), one of his major works which is an excellent source of information. In this book he speaks candidly about his various affairs and marriages, his attempted suicide and fear of insanity.”
Casting the Runes
April 15th, 190-
I am requested by the Council of the —— Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.
I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my affording you an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our laws allow of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as you suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration was given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent authority. No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to add) can have had the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.
Believe me (ut supra).
The Secretary of the —— Association begs respectfully to inform Mr Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any person or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell’s paper may have been submitted; and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to reply to any further letters on this subject.
‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.
‘Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that’s about all — except that I don’t want to meet him for the next week or two. Now, if you’re ready to leave this place, I am.’
‘What have you been doing to make him angry?’ asked Mrs Secretary.
‘The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a paper he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward Dunning — almost the only man in England who knows about these things — and he said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has been pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the name of the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that. But don’t you say anything about it, for goodness’ sake.’
‘I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope, though, he won’t get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.’
‘Poor Mr Dunning? I don’t know why you call him that; he’s a very happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time to himself.’
‘I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his name, and came and bothered him.’
‘Oh, ah! yes. I dare say he would be poor Mr Dunning then.’
The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had already settled it in her own mind that she would question them judiciously about Mr Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading up to the subject, for the hostess said to the host, before many minutes had passed, ‘I saw the Abbot of Lufford this morning.’ The host whistled. ‘Did you? What in the world brings him up to town?’ ‘Goodness knows; he was coming out of the British Museum gate as I drove past.’ It was not unnatural that Mrs Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot who was being spoken of. ‘Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is Karswell.’ ‘Is he a friend of yours?’ asked Mr Secretary, with a private wink to his wife. The question let loose a torrent of declamation. There was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one
could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous. ‘Do the poor man justice, dear,’ the husband interrupted. ‘You forget the treat he gave the school children.’ ‘Forget it, indeed! But I’m glad you mentioned it, because it gives an idea of the man. Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his parish (he’s not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant to the children — complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort; but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. He said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being there: they were at a children’s party at our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out: and he said Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said, were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park — Lufford, I mean — in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of. Of course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr Karswell, and said it couldn’t go on. All he said was: “Oh, you think it’s time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!” And then, if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don’t suppose one of them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame on poor Mr Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe the fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey. Well, now, that’s Mr Karswell: that’s the Abbot of Lufford, my dear, and you can imagine how we covet his society.’
‘Yes, I think he has all the possibilities of a distinguished criminal, has Karswell,’ said the host. ‘I should be sorry for anyone who got into his bad books.’
‘Is he the man, or am I mixing him up with someone else?’ asked the Secretary (who for some minutes had been wearing the frown of the man who is trying to recollect something). ‘Is he the man who brought out a History of Witchcraft some time back — ten years or more?’
‘That’s the man; do you remember the reviews of it?’
‘Certainly I do; and what’s equally to the point, I knew the author of the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John Harrington; he was at John’s in our time.’
‘Oh, very well indeed, though I don’t think I saw or heard anything of him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the inquest on him.’
‘Inquest?’ said one of the ladies. ‘What has happened to him?’
‘Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man — not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed — walking home along a country road late in the evening — no tramps about — well known and liked in the place — and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree — quite a difficult tree — growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he’s found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that. That was in ‘89, and I believe his brother Henry (whom I remember as well at Cambridge, but you probably don’t) has been trying to get on the track of an explanation ever since. He, of course, insists there was malice in it, but I don’t know. It’s difficult to see how it could have come in.’
After a time the talk reverted to the History of Witchcraft. ‘Did you ever look into it?’ asked the host.
‘Yes, I did,’ said the Secretary. ‘I went so far as to read it.’
‘Was it as bad as it was made out to be?’
‘Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I’m very much mistaken if he hadn’t tried the greater part of his receipts.’
‘Well, I only remember Harrington’s review of it, and I must say if I’d been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I should never have held up my head again.’
‘It hasn’t had that effect in the present case. But come, it’s half-past three; I must be off.’
On the way home the Secretary’s wife said, ‘I do hope that horrible man won’t find out that Mr Dunning had anything to do with the rejection of his paper.’ ‘I don’t think there’s much chance of that,’ said the Secretary. ‘Dunning won’t mention it himself, for these matters are confidential, and none of us will for the same reason. Karswell won’t know his name, for Dunning hasn’t published anything on the same subject yet. The only danger is that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask the British Museum people who was in the habit of consulting alchemical manuscripts: I can’t very well tell them not to mention Dunning, can I? It would set them talking at once. Let’s hope it won’t occur to him.’
However, Mr Karswell was an astute man.
This much is in the way of prologue. On an evening rather later in the same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where he had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb where he lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long with him. There is nothing to be added by way of description of him to what we have heard already. Let us follow him as he takes his sober course homewards.
A train took him to within a mile or two of his house, and an electric tram a stage farther. The line ended at a point some three hundred yards from his front door. He had had enough of reading when he got into the car, and indeed the light was not such as to allow him to do more than study the advertisements on the panes of glass that faced him as he sat. As was not unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of cars were objects of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible exception of the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them afforded much scope to his imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the corner of the car farthest from him which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow ground, and all that he could read of it was a name — John Harrington — and something like a date. It could be of no interest to him to know more; but for all that, as the car emptied, he was just curious enough to move along the seat until he could read it well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for his trouble; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus: ‘In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.’
The car stopped. Mr Dunning, still contemplating the blue letters on the yellow ground, had to be stimulated to rise by a word from the conductor. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, ‘I was looking at that advertisement; it’s a very odd one, isn’t it?’ The conductor read it slowly. ‘Well, my word,’ he said, ‘I never see that one before. Well, that is a cure, ain’t it? Someone bin up to their jokes ’ere, I should think.’ He got out a duster and applied it, not without saliva, to the pane and then to the outside. ‘No,’ he said, returning, ‘that ain’t no transfer; seems to me as if it was reg’lar in the glass, what I mean in the substance, as you may say. Don’t you think so, sir?’ Mr Dunning examined it and rubbed it with his glove, and agreed. ‘Who looks after these advertisements, and gives leave for them to be put up? I wish you would inquire. I will just take a note of the words.’ At this moment there came a call from the driver: ‘Look alive, George, time’s up.’ ‘All right, all right; there’s something else what’s up at this end. You come and look at this ’ere glass.’ ‘What’s gorn with the glass?’ said the driver, approaching. ‘Well, and oo’s ‘Arrington? What’s it all about?’ ‘I was just asking who was responsible for putting the advertisements up in your cars, and saying it would be as well to make some inquiry about this one.’ ‘Well, sir, that’s all done at the Company’s office, that work is: it’s our Mr Timms, I believe, looks into that. When we put up tonight I’ll leave word, and per’aps I’ll be able to tell you tomorrer if you ‘appen to be coming this way.’
This was all that passed that evening. Mr Dunning did just go to the trouble of looking up Ashbrooke, and found that it was in Warwickshire.
Next day he went to town again. The car (it was the same car) was too full in the morning to allow of his getting a word with the conductor: he could only be sure that the curious advertisement had been made away with. The close of the day brought a further element of mystery into the transaction. He had missed the tram, or else preferred walking home, but at a rather late hour, while he was at work in his study, one of the maids came to say that two men from the tramways was very anxious to speak to him. This was a reminder of the advertisement, which he had, he says, nearly forgotten. He had the men in-they were the conductor and driver of the car — and when the matter of refreshment had been attended to, asked what Mr Timms had had to say about the advertisement. ‘Well, sir, that’s what we took the liberty to step round about,’ said the conductor. ‘Mr Timms ‘e give William ’ere the rough side of his tongue about that: ‘cordin’ to ’im there warn’t no advertisement of that description sent in, nor ordered, nor paid for, nor put up, nor nothink, let alone not bein’ there, and we was playing the fool takin’ up his time. “Well,” I says, “if that’s the case, all I ask of you, Mr Timms,” I says, “is to take and look at it for yourself,” I says. “Of course if it ain’t there,” I says, “you may take and call me what you like.” “Right,” he says, “I will”: and we went straight off. Now, I leave it to you, sir, if that ad., as we term ’em, with ‘Arrington on it warn’t as plain as ever you see anythink — blue letters on yeller glass, and as I says at the time, and you borne me out, reg’lar in the glass, because, if you remember, you recollect of me swabbing it with my duster.’ ‘To be sure I do, quite clearly — well?’ ‘You may say well, I don’t think. Mr Timms he gets in that car with a light — no, he telled William to ‘old the light outside. “Now,” he says, “where’s your precious ad. what we’ve ‘eard so much about?” “‘Ere it is,” I says, “Mr Timms,” and I laid my ‘and on it.’ The conductor paused.
‘Well,’ said Mr Dunning, ‘it was gone, I suppose. Broken?’
‘Broke! — not it. There warn’t, if you’ll believe me, no more trace of them letters — blue letters they was — on that piece o’ glass, than — well, it’s no good me talkin’. I never see such a thing. I leave it to William here if — but there, as I says, where’s the benefit in me going on about it?’
‘And what did Mr Timms say?’
‘Why ‘e did what I give ’im leave to — called us pretty much anythink he liked, and I don’t know as I blame him so much neither. But what we thought, William and me did, was as we seen you take down a bit of a note about that — well, that letterin’—’
‘I certainly did that, and I have it now. Did you wish me to speak to Mr Timms myself, and show it to him? Was that what you came in about?’
‘There, didn’t I say as much?’ said William. ‘Deal with a gent if you can get on the track of one, that’s my word. Now perhaps, George, you’ll allow as I ain’t took you very far wrong tonight.’
‘Very well, William, very well; no need for you to go on as if you’d ‘ad to frog’s-march me ’ere. I come quiet, didn’t I? All the same for that, we ‘adn’t ought to take up your time this way, sir; but if it so ‘appened you could find time to step round to the Company orfice in the morning and tell Mr Timms what you seen for yourself, we should lay under a very ‘igh obligation to you for the trouble. You see it ain’t bein’ called — well, one thing and another, as we mind, but if they got it into their ‘ead at the orfice as we seen things as warn’t there, why, one thing leads to another, and where we should be a twelvemunce ‘ence — well, you can understand what I mean.’
Amid further elucidations of the proposition, George, conducted by William, left the room.
The incredulity of Mr Timms (who had a nodding acquaintance with Mr Dunning) was greatly modified on the following day by what the latter could tell and show him; and any bad mark that might have been attached to the names of William and George was not suffered to remain on the Company’s books; but explanation there was none.
Mr Dunning’s interest in the matter was kept alive by an incident of the following afternoon. He was walking from his club to the train, and he noticed some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms. This agent had not chosen a very crowded street for his operations: in fact, Mr Dunning did not see him get rid of a single leaflet before he himself reached the spot. One was thrust into his hand as he passed: the hand that gave it touched his, and he experienced a sort of little shock as it did so. It seemed unnaturally rough and hot. He looked in passing at the giver, but the impression he got was so unclear that, however much he tried to reckon it up subsequently, nothing would come. He was walking quickly, and as he went on glanced at the paper. It was a blue one. The name of Harrington in large capitals caught his eye. He stopped, startled, and felt for his glasses. The next instant the leaflet was twitched out of his hand by a man who hurried past, and was irrecoverably gone. He ran back a few paces, but where was the passer-by? and where the distributor?
It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire. ‘It is mine, thank you,’ said Mr Dunning. In another moment the man had left the room. Upon finishing his work for the afternoon, Mr Dunning had some conversation with the assistant in charge, and took occasion to ask who the stout gentleman was. ‘Oh, he’s a man named Karswell,’ said the assistant; ‘he was asking me a week ago who were the great authorities on alchemy, and of course I told him you were the only one in the country. I’ll see if I can catch him: he’d like to meet you, I’m sure.’
‘For heaven’s sake don’t dream of it!’ said Mr Dunning, ‘I’m particularly anxious to avoid him.’
‘Oh! very well,’ said the assistant, ‘he doesn’t come here often: I dare say you won’t meet him.’
More than once on the way home that day Mr Dunning confessed to himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men — had taken him in charge, as it were. He wanted to sit close up to his neighbours in the train and in the tram, but as luck would have it both train and car were markedly empty. The conductor George was thoughtful, and appeared to be absorbed in calculations as to the number of passengers. On arriving at his house he found Dr Watson, his medical man, on his doorstep. ‘I’ve had to upset your household arrangements, I’m sorry to say, Dunning. Both your servants hors de combat. In fact, I’ve had to send them to the Nursing Home.’
‘Good heavens! what’s the matter?’
‘It’s something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you’ve not suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn’t be walking about. I think they’ll pull through all right.’
‘Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?’ ‘Well, they tell me they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their dinner-time. It’s odd. I’ve made inquiries, but I can’t find that any hawker has been to other houses in the street. I couldn’t send word to you; they won’t be back for a bit yet. You come and dine with me tonight, anyhow, and we can make arrangements for going on. Eight o’clock. Don’t be too anxious.’ The solitary evening was thus obviated; at the expense of some distress and inconvenience, it is true. Mr Dunning spent the time pleasantly enough with the doctor (a rather recent settler), and returned to his lonely home at about 11.30. The night he passed is not one on which he looks back with any satisfaction. He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to get him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk. It was rather shame than courage that induced him to slip out into the passage and lean over the banister in his nightgown, listening. No light was visible; no further sound came: only a gust of warm, or even hot air played for an instant round his shins. He went back and decided to lock himself into his room. There was more unpleasantness, however. Either an economical suburban company had decided that their light would not be required in the small hours, and had stopped working, or else something was wrong with the meter; the effect was in any case that the electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
The venturing back to his own room in the morning was attended with many listenings and quiverings. The door stood open, fortunately, and the blinds were up (the servants had been out of the house before the hour of drawing them down); there was, to be short, no trace of an inhabitant. The watch, too, was in its usual place; nothing was disturbed, only the wardrobe door had swung open, in accordance with its confirmed habit. A ring at the back door now announced the charwoman, who had been ordered the night before, and nerved Mr Dunning, after letting her in, to continue his search in other parts of the house. It was equally fruitless.
The day thus begun went on dismally enough. He dared not go to the Museum: in spite of what the assistant had said, Karswell might turn up there, and Dunning felt he could not cope with a probably hostile stranger. His own house was odious; he hated sponging on the doctor. He spent some little time in a call at the Nursing Home, where he was slightly cheered by a good report of his housekeeper and maid. Towards lunch-time he betook himself to his club, again experiencing a gleam of satisfaction at seeing the Secretary of the Association. At luncheon Dunning told his friend the more material of his woes, but could not bring himself to speak of those that weighed most heavily on his spirits. ‘My poor dear man,’ said the Secretary, ‘what an upset! Look here: we’re alone at home, absolutely. You must put up with us. Yes! no excuse: send your things in this afternoon.’ Dunning was unable to stand out: he was, in truth, becoming acutely anxious, as the hours went on, as to what that night might have waiting for him. He was almost happy as he hurried home to pack up.
His friends, when they had time to take stock of him, were rather shocked at his lorn appearance, and did their best to keep him up to the mark. Not altogether without success: but, when the two men were smoking alone later, Dunning became dull again. Suddenly he said, ‘Gayton, I believe that alchemist man knows it was I who got his paper rejected.’ Gayton whistled. ‘What makes you think that?’ he said. Dunning told of his conversation with the Museum assistant, and Gayton could only agree that the guess seemed likely to be correct. ‘Not that I care much,’ Dunning went on, ‘only it might be a nuisance if we were to meet. He’s a bad-tempered party, I imagine.’ Conversation dropped again; Gayton became more and more strongly impressed with the desolateness that came over Dunning’s face and bearing, and finally — though with a considerable effort — he asked him point-blank whether something serious was not bothering him. Dunning gave an exclamation of relief. ‘I was perishing to get it off my mind,’ he said. ‘Do you know anything about a man named John Harrington?’ Gayton was thoroughly startled, and at the moment could only ask why. Then the complete story of Dunning’s experiences came out — what had happened in the tramcar, in his own house, and in the street, the troubling of spirit that had crept over him, and still held him; and he ended with the question he had begun with. Gayton was at a loss how to answer him. To tell the story of Harrington’s end would perhaps be right; only, Dunning was in a nervous state, the story was a grim one, and he could not help asking himself whether there were not a connecting link between these two cases, in the person of Karswell. It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could be eased by the phrase ‘hypnotic suggestion’. In the end he decided that his answer tonight should be guarded; he would talk the situation over with his wife. So he said that he had known Harrington at Cambridge, and believed he had died suddenly in 1889, adding a few details about the man and his published work. He did talk over the matter with Mrs Gayton, and, as he had anticipated, she leapt at once to the conclusion which had been hovering before him. It was she who reminded him of the surviving brother, Henry Harrington, and she also who suggested that he might be got hold of by means of their hosts of the day before. ‘He might be a hopeless crank,’ objected Gayton. ‘That could be ascertained from the Bennetts, who knew him,’ Mrs Gayton retorted; and she undertook to see the Bennetts the very next day.
It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry Harrington and Dunning were brought together.
The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation that took place between the two. Dunning had told Harrington of the strange ways in which the dead man’s name had been brought before him, and had said something, besides, of his own subsequent experiences. Then he had asked if Harrington was disposed, in return, to recall any of the circumstances connected with his brother’s death. Harrington’s surprise at what he heard can be imagined: but his reply was readily given.
‘John,’ he said, ‘was in a very odd state, undeniably, from time to time, during some weeks before, though not immediately before, the catastrophe. There were several things; the principal notion he had was that he thought he was being followed. No doubt he was an impressionable man, but he never had had such fancies as this before. I cannot get it out of my mind that there was ill-will at work, and what you tell me about yourself reminds me very much of my brother. Can you think of any possible connecting link?’
‘There is just one that has been taking shape vaguely in my mind. I’ve been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely not long before he died, and just lately I have happened to cross the path of the man who wrote that book in a way he would resent.’
‘Don’t tell me the man was called Karswell.’
‘Why not? that is exactly his name.’
Henry Harrington leant back. ‘That is final to my mind. Now I must explain further. From something he said, I feel sure that my brother John was beginning to believe — very much against his will — that Karswell was at the bottom of his trouble. I want to tell you what seems to me to have a bearing on the situation. My brother was a great musician, and used to run up to concerts in town. He came back, three months before he died, from one of these, and gave me his programme to look at — an analytical programme: he always kept them. “I nearly missed this one,” he said. “I suppose I must have dropped it: anyhow, I was looking for it under my seat and in my pockets and so on, and my neighbour offered me his, said ‘might he give it me, he had no further use for it,’ and he went away just afterwards. I don’t know who he was — a stout, clean-shaven man. I should have been sorry to miss it; of course I could have bought another, but this cost me nothing.” At another time he told me that he had been very uncomfortable both on the way to his hotel and during the night. I piece things together now in thinking it over. Then, not very long after, he was going over these programmes, putting them in order to have them bound up, and in this particular one (which by the way I had hardly glanced at), he found quite near the beginning a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black — most carefully done — it looked to me more like Runic letters than anything else. “Why,” he said, “this must belong to my fat neighbour. It looks as if it might be worth returning to him; it may be a copy of something; evidently someone has taken trouble over it. How can I find his address?” We talked it over for a little and agreed that it wasn’t worth advertising about, and that my brother had better look out for the man at the next concert, to which he was going very soon. The paper was lying on the book and we were both by the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening. I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust — a warm gust it was — came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash. “Well,” I said, “you can’t give it back now.” He said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, “No, I can’t; but why you should keep on saying so I don’t know.” I remarked that I didn’t say it more than once. “Not more than four times, you mean,” was all he said. I remember all that very clearly, without any good reason; and now to come to the point. I don’t know if you looked at that book of Karswell’s which my unfortunate brother reviewed. It’s not likely that you should: but I did, both before his death and after it. The first time we made game of it together. It was written in no style at all — split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that the man didn’t swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today — all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn’t: he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short. Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the book again. It was no better than before, but the impression which it left this time on my mind was different. I suspected — as I told you — that Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother, even that he was in some way responsible for what had happened; and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge. I’ve not time to go into details, but the upshot is that I am pretty sure from information received that the civil man at the concert was Karswell: I suspect — I more than suspect — that the paper was of importance: and I do believe that if my brother had been able to give it back, he might have been alive now. Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you whether you have anything to put beside what I have told you.’
By way of answer, Dunning had the episode in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum to relate.
‘Then he did actually hand you some papers; have you examined them? No? because we must, if you’ll allow it, look at them at once, and very carefully.’
They went to the still empty house — empty, for the two servants were not yet able to return to work. Dunning’s portfolio of papers was gathering dust on the writing-table. In it were the quires of small-sized scribbling paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of these, as he took it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room with uncanny quickness, a strip of thin light paper. The window was open, but Harrington slammed it to, just in time to intercept the paper, which he caught. ‘I thought so,’ he said; ‘it might be the identical thing that was given to my brother. You’ll have to look out, Dunning; this may mean something quite serious for you.’
A long consultation took place. The paper was narrowly examined. As Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like Runes than anything else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to copy them, for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil purpose they might conceal. So it has remained impossible (if I may anticipate a little) to ascertain what was conveyed in this curious message or commission. Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it had the effect of bringing its possessors into very undesirable company. That it must be returned to the source whence it came they were agreed, and further, that the only safe and certain way was that of personal service; and here contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning was known by sight to Karswell. He must, for one thing, alter his appearance by shaving his beard. But then might not the blow fall first? Harrington thought they could time it. He knew the date of the concert at which the ‘black spot’ had been put on his brother: it was June 18th. The death had followed on Sept. 18th. Dunning reminded him that three months had been mentioned on the inscription on the car-window. ‘Perhaps,’ he added, with a cheerless laugh, ‘mine may be a bill at three months too. I believe I can fix it by my diary. Yes, April 23rd was the day at the Museum; that brings us to July 23rd. Now, you know, it becomes extremely important to me to know anything you will tell me about the progress of your brother’s trouble, if it is possible for you to speak of it.’ ‘Of course. Well, the sense of being watched whenever he was alone was the most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in his room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before things are straightened out? I think not, but I can tell you this: two things came for him by post during those weeks, both with a London postmark, and addressed in a commercial hand. One was a woodcut of Bewick’s, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the “Ancient Mariner” (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round —
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
The other was a calendar, such as tradesmen often send. My brother paid no attention to this, but I looked at it after his death, and found that everything after Sept. 18 had been torn out. You may be surprised at his having gone out alone the evening he was killed, but the fact is that during the last ten days or so of his life he had been quite free from the sense of being followed or watched.’
The end of the consultation was this. Harrington, who knew a neighbour of Karswell’s, thought he saw a way of keeping a watch on his movements. It would be Dunning’s part to be in readiness to try to cross Karswell’s path at any moment, to keep the paper safe and in a place of ready access.
They parted. The next weeks were no doubt a severe strain upon Dunning’s nerves: the intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about him on the day when he received the paper, gradually developed into a brooding blackness that cut him off from the means of escape to which one might have thought he might resort. No one was at hand who was likely to suggest them to him, and he seemed robbed of all initiative. He waited with inexpressible anxiety as May, June, and early July passed on, for a mandate from Harrington. But all this time Karswell remained immovable at Lufford.
At last, in less than a week before the date he had come to look upon as the end of his earthly activities, came a telegram: ‘Leaves Victoria by boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you to-night. Harrington.’
He arrived accordingly, and they concocted plans. The train left Victoria at nine and its last stop before Dover was Croydon West. Harrington would mark down Karswell at Victoria, and look out for Dunning at Croydon, calling to him if need were by a name agreed upon. Dunning, disguised as far as might be, was to have no label or initials on any hand luggage, and must at all costs have the paper with him.
Dunning’s suspense as he waited on the Croydon platform I need not attempt to describe. His sense of danger during the last days had only been sharpened by the fact that the cloud about him had perceptibly been lighter; but relief was an ominous symptom, and, if Karswell eluded him now, hope was gone: and there were so many chances of that. The rumour of the journey might be itself a device. The twenty minutes in which he paced the platform and persecuted every porter with inquiries as to the boat train were as bitter as any he had spent. Still, the train came, and Harrington was at the window. It was important, of course, that there should be no recognition: so Dunning got in at the farther end of the corridor carriage, and only gradually made his way to the compartment where Harrington and Karswell were. He was pleased, on the whole, to see that the train was far from full.
Karswell was on the alert, but gave no sign of recognition. Dunning took the seat not immediately facing him, and attempted, vainly at first, then with increasing command of his faculties, to reckon the possibilities of making the desired transfer. Opposite to Karswell, and next to Dunning, was a heap of Karswell’s coats on the seat. It would be of no use to slip the paper into these — he would not be safe, or would not feel so, unless in some way it could be proffered by him and accepted by the other. There was a handbag, open, and with papers in it. Could he manage to conceal this (so that perhaps Karswell might leave the carriage without it), and then find and give it to him? This was the plan that suggested itself. If he could only have counselled with Harrington! but that could not be. The minutes went on. More than once Karswell rose and went out into the corridor. The second time Dunning was on the point of attempting to make the bag fall off the seat, but he caught Harrington’s eye, and read in it a warning.
Karswell, from the corridor, was watching: probably to see if the two men recognized each other. He returned, but was evidently restless: and, when he rose the third time, hope dawned, for something did slip off his seat and fall with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out once more, and passed out of range of the corridor window. Dunning picked up what had fallen, and saw that the key was in his hands in the form of one of Cook’s ticket-cases, with tickets in it. These cases have a pocket in the cover, and within very few seconds the paper of which we have heard was in the pocket of this one. To make the operation more secure, Harrington stood in the doorway of the compartment and fiddled with the blind. It was done, and done at the right time, for the train was now slowing down towards Dover.
In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so, Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice, handed him the ticket-case, saying, ‘May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.’ After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered the hoped-for response, ‘Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,’ and he placed it in his breast pocket.
Even in the few moments that remained — moments of tense anxiety, for they knew not to what a premature finding of the paper might lead — both men noticed that the carriage seemed to darken about them and to grow warmer; that Karswell was fidgety and oppressed; that he drew the heap of loose coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and that he then sat upright and glanced anxiously at both. They, with sickening anxiety, busied themselves in collecting their belongings; but they both thought that Karswell was on the point of speaking when the train stopped at Dover Town. It was natural that in the short space between town and pier they should both go into the corridor.
At the pier they got out, but so empty was the train that they were forced to linger on the platform until Karswell should have passed ahead of them with his porter on the way to the boat, and only then was it safe for them to exchange a pressure of the hand and a word of concentrated congratulation. The effect upon Dunning was to make him almost faint. Harrington made him lean up against the wall, while he himself went forward a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which Karswell had now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket, and, laden with coats he passed down into the boat. Suddenly the official called after him, ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ ‘What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?’ Karswell’s snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. ‘The devil? Well, I don’t know, I’m sure,’ Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud, ‘My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.’ And then, to a subordinate near him, ‘‘Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone. Well, whatever it was, they’ll ‘ave to see to it aboard. She’s off now. Another week and we shall be gettin’ the ‘oliday customers.’ In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.
Long and long the two sat in their room at the ‘Lord Warden’. In spite of the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt, not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? ‘No,’ said Harrington; ‘if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more than is just. Still, if you think it better — but how and where can you warn him?’ ‘He was booked to Abbeville only,’ said Dunning. ‘I saw that. If I wired to the hotels there in Joanne’s Guide, “Examine your ticket-case, Dunning,” I should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will have a day. But I am afraid he has gone into the dark.’ So telegrams were left at the hotel office.
It is not clear whether these reached their destination, or whether, if they did, they were understood. All that is known is that, on the afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville, then under extensive repair, was struck on the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller’s papers identified him as Mr Karswell.
Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell’s sale a set of Bewick, sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also, after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before Dunning stopped him.