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Title: Fires Burn Blue Author: Andrew Caldecott * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1403351h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2014 Most recent update: December 2014 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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An Exchange of
Cheap and Nasty
What's in a Name?
Under the Mistletoe
His Name was Legion
Tall Tales but True
A Book Entry
Seeds of Remembrance
Seated One Day at the Organ
It is doubtful whether you would call Telmington a village or a small country town. Until 1849 it had boasted a weekly cattle market; but after completion of the Daven Valley railway this was transferred to Shallowford, some four miles distant. An annual Hilary Fair survived until its site was usurped by the Jubilee clock-tower, the gift (as a marble tablet bears record) of Edmund Giles Touchwood, J. P., of Telming Hall in this Parish. Shorn thus of its market and fair Telmington attracted but few visitors; its seven shops and two inns catering almost solely for its thousand or so inhabitants. In this stagnancy it remained until the inauguration, in 1907, of a motor-bus service to and from Shallowford station twice daily.
Edmund Touchwood having died a widower and without male issue, Telming Hall in the autumn of 1910 was the home of his only daughter, Mrs Parlington. Her Christian name, Letitia, she ascribed to an apocryphal sneeze by a godmother at her baptism. She much disliked it; but, as such names will, it stuck to her like a burr; and Letitia she was called, though not to her face, by all and sundry in the neighbourhood. An energetic, capable and kindly, if rather managing woman, she gardened, beagled, cycled, served on the Rural District Council and Board of Guardians, sketched in water-colour, and played the organ in church. Dr Holmbush described her intellectual interests as middle-brow. Although of general good temper she could on certain subjects, music for instance, be argumentative and touchy. Indeed, her seat at the church organ was occupied on the express understanding that, while the choice of hymns lay with the rector, it was for her to determine the tunes. Her language on this point had been blunt. 'The words of half your hymns, Rector, are tosh. That's your lookout, of course; but I refuse to play toshy tunes.' In a matter of months she had the choir on her side, and within a year or two the congregation also; the rector being left in lonely lament for rejected 'old favourites'.
Another subject on which Letitia could speak harshly and hotly was spiritualism. Her aversion to it was not from disbelief in spirits but from belief in them. She ever maintained that her husband, who had been killed in the Boer War, appeared to her before her receipt of the War Office telegram. She saw him standing in uniform at the foot of her bed. He looked at her, smiled sadly and was gone. In that moment, she averred, was established complete and eternal understanding between them. His smile showed that he had no cause for fear; its sadness that he was sorry at the ending of their earthly companionship. There was no reason for him to reappear; nor did he. Her theory was that if a departing spirit (she emphasised the present participle) had a message to give, he or she would give it. Once departed (again an emphasis on the tense of the participle) he or she would be quit of earthly connections and worries. If table-rappers and so-called mediums ever really managed to put a call through, it would be an unwarranted and generally unheeded interruption; like a telephone call after one is snugly abed. Small wonder, she said, that the answers they got, if genuine, were such tosh. Séances were, more often than not, charged with fraud on the quick; and always with insult to the dead.
These views, thus trenchantly expressed, gave offence to Miss Godwinstowe, founder of the Telmington Psychic Circle, without commending themselves to out-and-out sceptics. The rector, however, fancied that he found in them a reflection of his own.
'I'm so glad, Mrs Parlington,' he confided, 'that you share my conviction that apparitions of the dying are just simulacra without power of speech.'
'I've never said that; or thought it. My husband had no need to talk, nor I to hear. Our converse was total and complete without it.'
'Ah! Exactly so, exactly so!' nervously assented the rector, anxious to avoid any disagreement.
'But if,' continued Letitia, 'he had felt speech necessary, he would certainly have spoken. And don't you forget, Rector, that if you were to choose toshy hymns for my funeral you would certainly find me a talkative ghost.'
The rector deprecated this sudden turn towards levity. 'You are more likely to be at my obsequies than I at yours, Mrs Parlington; but really we oughtn't to speak lightly of grave matters, ought we? Dear me, how the days draw in to be sure! I must be getting home, for I forgot to put any oil in my bicycle lamp.'
'You were a bit hard on the foolish virgins in your sermon last Sunday, I thought. Well, goodbye, and look out for those loose stones by the lodge; they're dangerous.'
She watched him free-wheeling down the drive.
'How difficult it must be to be a parson,' she mused half-aloud. 'The little man means well.'
The Reverend Septimus Tardell did mean well. Nor, as too often is the case, was well-meaning mated with ill-reasoning or tactless scheming. His main present problem was how to remedy a division of his parishioners into two camps. Division perhaps was a wrong term to apply to two groups which, although Telmington was geographically their common ground, and its church should have been so spiritually, had never really come together. An improved bus time-table and the incipient vogue of private cars had led to speculative building on the fringes of the village and to an invasion not only of regular week-enders, but even of daily-breaders who went up to London by the nine-three from Shallowford and returned by the six-eighteen. Such households had no roots in the countryside; they professed a liking for rural scenery and quiet, but their mental landscape remained essentially urban. As a result there was no neighbourliness, worth the word, between what the postmistress called 'our old people' and 'that new set'. Polite calls paid by the former on the latter were as politely returned; but at that it ended. The gulf of mutual disinterest was unbridged. In church such newcomers as attended slunk shyly to seats at the extreme west end, rather than incur inquisitive glances from pew-holders of long standing. In vain did the rector periodically proclaim that all seats were free, and exhort his congregation to sit as near as conveniently possible to the pulpit. He might as well have bade water mix with oil. Things could not be put right by a homily. Nevertheless he felt in duty and conscience bound to do something to prevent permanent cleavage. The age was yet to come when a parson's job would connote an intensive specialism in church services with occasional sick-calls in the wake of the district nurse. Mr Tardell felt and knew himself still to be an influential personage. Though he had but two maids and a bicycle, did he not reside in a twelve-bedroomed rectory with stabling for six horses? The popular estimate of the importance of an office, as banks and business houses have long found out, is often in proportion to the size of its premises. In 1910 rector and rectory, vicar and vicarage, still counted for much in the rural social fabric. The parish looked to the parson not merely for ministry but for leadership.
Mr Tardell was a systematic man. He kept, for instance, a notebook docketed 'Parish Memoranda & Agenda', which we find him perusing, pencil in hand, on the morning after his call on Mrs Parlington. The two pages open before him contain notes upon the various village societies and clubs. He is going to place a tick against any that might be made use of for the breaking down of social and cultural barriers. Telmington Cricket Club. A promising field, no doubt—but wait a bit though; weren't they talking of playing on Sundays? Well, Charles Dickens had approved of it (a strong Dickensian, Mr Tardell) and it was bound to come, anyway. So a tick. Query. Why no football club? Play on the rectory field was unorganised and spasmodic. Mem: get hold of young Towling and suggest that he start one. Hockey too, perhaps. Telmington Horticultural Society. Their annual flower show was excellent and some of the new people were already exhibitors. A tick. Query: why not two or three shows a year—spring, summer and Michaelmas? Mem: suggest this to Colonel Bratton. Working Men's Club. Useful, but not for the present purpose; no newcomers in this category. Telmington Psychic Circle. The rector reddened and frowned. Just as Miss Godwinstowe's séances had ceased to attract the curious in such matters, some village wag had given the circle a new lease of notoriety by painting 'Licensed to Retail Spirits' above her front door in Church Street. Worse still, Miss Tisdale (easily his best Sunday-school teacher) was reported to be attending its meetings. No tick against this item! Philharmonic Club. Moribund, alas, since the Gurdstones left Telmington. A chorus and orchestra would be the very thing to rope in quite a lot of people, new and old. Two ticks! The difficulty was how to go about it. Mrs Parlington had quite enough to do already, running the church choir. Besides, a choral society would need tact rather than tyranny! He mustn't hurt her feelings, though; and there would be no harm in asking her to be patroness, in view of her position as the Lady of Telming Hall. Patronesses are ornamental, not executive. The right person to resuscitate the club would undoubtedly be Dr Wrenshall, retired organist of Wintonbury Cathedral, who had just come to live at Fretfield Grange. The Mus.Doc. and F.R.C.O. after his name would look well on the club's programmes—if only he would take the job on. Anyhow, he couldn't object to being asked.
The rector called at Fretfield Grange, and later at Telming Hall, that very afternoon. Dr Wrenshall agreed to serve, subject to reconsideration, should there emerge an insufficiency of singers or instrumentalists; and to the stipulation that he alone should choose all works to be practised or performed. Mrs Parlington also consented to be patroness, with a promise (that the rector thought it prudent to extract) that, if ever she had suggestions or criticisms to make about the music or its rendering, they should be tendered privately to Dr Wrenshall and not bruited in the course of practice or rehearsal. Dr Wrenshall, the rector pointed out, was accustomed to a highly disciplined choir; so care must be taken not to upset him. 'Naturally,' Mrs Parlington rejoined, 'and, from what I've heard from friends at Wintonbury, one thing that he won't stand at any price is toshy tunes. So you'd better be careful yourself, Rector!'
A public meeting to promote the revival of the Telmington Philharmonic Club was largely and enthusiastically attended, both by old inhabitants and by newcomers. Dr Wrenshall was elected President and Conductor; Mrs Parlington, by acclamation, as patroness. Next Sunday morning Mr Tardell preached on 'Music in the Bible'. Mrs Trimshaw, wife of the people's churchwarden and an ex-governess, remarked that the dear Rector's learning seemed quite cyclopaedic. So indeed it was, in the sense that the sermon had been lifted straight out of an encyclopaedia.
In the course of the next two years the Telmington Philharmonic Club increased both in membership and in competency. Dr Wren shall told the orchestra that they had begun by playing with scores, and were now learning to play them. He refused all requests for a concert during the first formative eighteen months; but agreed to conduct a public performance in celebration of the club's second birthday. In the meanwhile Mr Tardell had made the acquaintance of Sir Cuthbert Kewbridge, the composer, and had obtained for the club the privilege of being the first to render his Poem for Chorus and Orchestra entitled Northern Lights. The music was still in manuscript; for Sir Cuthbert wished to hear the effect of certain passages before authorising their publication. A good deal of copying of the voice parts had to be done; and Mrs Parlington, with her usual helpfulness and energy, produced most of the copies. As a result she claimed to know the whole thing backwards, and to have discovered what she characterised as weak spots. Her criticisms receiving no encouragement from Dr Wrenshall, she finally focused her faultfinding on one particular note in the soprano part.
'The treble F in the third bar of line five on page twenty-three should certainly be A,' she protested. 'I feel it in my bones that Sir Cuthbert couldn't have meant F; it makes tosh of the whole passage. You simply must write to him, Dr Wrenshall, and get his permission to alter it.'
'What do you say, Rector?' asked Dr Wrenshall, after scrutinising the note and bar in question. 'I think there's something in what Mrs Parlington says; but you know the composer, and I don't; so, if anybody's going to write to him, it should obviously be you.'
'I fancy, Wrenshall, that he might feel it almost an impertinence. After all, he's coming down to hear our little concert with the express purpose of detecting any imperfections in his composition. Personally I would not dream of trespassing on the field of his artistic creation or musical judgment.'
Mr Tardell's voice, and face, reflected considerable satisfaction at having been able thus obliquely to squash Letitia—had she not dubbed his favourite hymn-tunes tosh?—and she was quick to perceive it.
'Very well,' she retorted, 'he shall hear what he undoubtedly meant to write, and not what he has miswritten. I shall sing A fortissimo; and you know, Rector, what my fortissimo can be.'
'But, my dear lady, you could not do that, you know, without injustice to Dr Wrenshall, who is taking such pains to secure an exact rendition.'
'I shall merely make a mistake, and Dr Wrenshall can apologise for me afterwards to Sir Cuthbert if he thinks it necessary. But I bet you half a crown, Rector, that Sir Cuthbert won't think it a mistake.'
'As you are aware,' Mr Tardell spoke in a tone of reproval, 'I do not bet, even in joke. If I did, I would certainly take yours. But if you are set on such an improper course, Mrs Parlington, I sincerely trust that you will say nothing of it to the other singers.'
'Of course not,' she replied tartly; 'I've already given you my word on that. Well, I must be off now to catch the post; these new collection times are most inconvenient.'
As she left the room Dr Wrenshall smiled and shrugged his shoulders. 'Temperamental,' he said, turning to the still ruffled rector, 'very much so. Yet she has been of tremendous assistance in copying out all these parts; and an intentional mistake will be a change from the unintentional ones of other singers. I doubt, too, whether Kewbridge will notice just a single voice on the A, whatever her fortissimo. So don't let it worry you unduly.'
'No; but I hate indiscipline. She won't stand it herself from the church choir.'
Dr Wrenshall smiled again. 'Quite right too,' he murmured, sitting down to the piano.
The evening of the concert arrived. Seated in the front row, next to Sir Cuthbert Kewbridge, Mr Tardell viewed the packed hall with a full sense of satisfaction. The new and old strata of his parishioners were pleasantly intermingled both on the platform and in the auditorium. The Philharmonic Club had indeed attracted all who were musically inclined; many acquaintances had been made, and not a few friendships formed. Dr Wrenshall moreover informed him that both choir and orchestra had developed a team spirit, and that he anticipated a highly creditable performance. The rector's sole cause for anxiety had been removed by Mrs Parlington's departure for Wolmingham some days previously, to help look after an old school-friend who had been taken suddenly and seriously ill. She expected to be away for ten days at least, and had asked Miss Tisdale to deputise for her at the church organ. Mr Tardell intended during the interval to ask the latter to play some of his old favourites; but, looking round the hall, he could see no sign of her. Then with a frown he remembered that it was Thursday, and that she was probably at the Psychic Circle. Miss Godwinstowe, he had been told, refused to put off their weekly séance, holding that the Philharmonic Club should have chosen some other day for its concert. How typical of her!
In the first half of the programme choir and orchestra amply justified Dr Wrenshall's expectations of them. The items were unambitious, and their execution such as to give the performers confidence in their ability later on to render Northern Lights not unworthily of the composer's presence.
The rector had just begun to inform Sir Cuthbert that the resuscitation of the Philharmonic Club had been his own idea, when he was annoyingly interrupted by a message to the effect that Miss Tisdale particularly wanted a word with him at the outer door. Excusing himself to Sir Cuthbert he made his way down the gangway and, without the usual courtesy of bidding her good evening, asked abruptly what it was she wanted.
'I supposed that you would have been at the Psychic Circle,' he added sarcastically.
'Well, yes, Rector,' she replied, 'and that's why I've run up here to see you.'
'What do you mean by "that's why"?'
'Well, Miss Godwinstowe thought it only fair that somebody should tell you: before it's too late!'
'Tell me what?'
'That there's some spirit trying to get through to you. We don't know who it is; but it's someone.'
The wind blew icily in at the doorway, but it was not so cutting as Mr Tardell's reply.
'You can tell Miss Godwinstowe that you have delivered her message. She knows what I think of such things. I must now be hurrying back to Sir Cuthbert. He will be wondering where I've gone. Good night, Miss Tisdale.'
Back inside the vestibule he muttered an angry 'Preposterous!' and on regaining his seat was disappointed to find Sir Cuthbert no longer there but in conversation with the leader of the orchestra. He was also perturbed by the dimness of the footlights. The village gasworks were notorious for reducing pressure without warning. If it went any lower, the singers and instrumentalists would hardly see their notes. He was just about to say so to the returning Sir Cuthbert when a rap of the conductor's baton transformed the buzz of conversation into a tense silence of expectancy.
The rector had reproved churchwarden Trimshaw, at the dress rehearsal, for describing the music of the short overture to Northern Lights as 'snaky'. Snakiness, he had observed, was not a word in the vocabulary of musical criticism. Now, as he listened to it this evening, he admitted to himself that certain passages, in the violin parts particularly, had a reptilian quality. It gave him a vague feeling of discomfort, which was aggravated by a draught of cold air that began to chill the back of his neck and the bald patch on his head. Somebody must have opened the east window, which he had given orders to keep closed. He hoped he would not catch cold. It might be his imagination, but the gas jets seemed to him to burn lower than ever; and, as the singers rose for the opening chorus, he began scanning their faces to see whether any of them had difficulty in seeing their music. Apparently not; but, he reflected, probably they knew it all by heart after so much practice and rehearsal. Then all of a sudden his gaze became riveted on the vacant row which separated trebles from altos. Mrs Parlington was standing there; and, he thought, looking not at the conductor or her music but pointedly at him. Drat the woman! She must have rushed down for the concert and caught the three-eighteen from London. Now, of course, she would sing that threatened A! She appeared to be saving up for it, too, for her mouth was closely shut and her lips motionless. It seemed to him an age before the crucial passage came. But come at last it did. A brief half-second before the conductor's beat the closed lips opened, but only narrowly. From them he seemed to hear momentarily a faint note as of a pitch-pipe or tuning-fork; and then, to his consternation, the whole three rows of sopranos burst out on A, fortissimo. Horrified, he glanced anxiously at Sir Cuthbert. The composer's head was thrown back; his eyes were closed; and his lips bore the suggestion of a smile. Had he noticed? It seemed not; but, surely, he must have? Much puzzled, Mr Tardell turned his eyes nervously back to the platform, and again found it hard to believe them. Mrs Parlington had gone! He looked carefully at each row of singers, but there was no sign of her. How cold that draught was! He dug his hands deep into his trousers pockets for warmth, bringing his finger-nails into sharp contact with coins and a bunch of keys. The lights were burning more brightly now, but his feeling of anxiety persisted. He was not enjoying the music or attempting to follow it. He was, indeed, hardly conscious of the ending of the final chorus or of the burst of applause that followed. It was Sir Cuthbert's movement towards the platform steps, in answer to cries of 'Composer', that brought him back to full alertness.
'I have been delighted,' Sir Cuthbert was saying, 'by this performance of my most recent work. I most gratefully felicitate both choir and orchestra on its excellent interpretation, and I congratulate them—and not only them, but all music-lovers in this neighbourhood—on having in Dr Wrenshall a trainer and conductor who will lead this Philharmonic Club ever further along the never-ending road to musical perfection. You, Ladies and Gentlemen of the audience, will be interested to hear that we have had an example of his superlative musicianship this very evening. In making my final manuscript of Northern Lights I made a careless mistake, when copying the treble part from my rough draft. I wrote an F instead of an A. I noticed the error only this morning, while refreshing my memory of certain passages which I particularly wanted to hear in actual performance; and I felt most unhappy, as the mistake entirely ruined a climax in the second chorus. I felt that it would be unfair to mention the matter to Dr Wrenshall at the eleventh hour, when there was no possibility of further rehearsal, and decided to grin and bear the result of my own carelessness. Imagine, therefore, my relief and delight when that A rang out so triumphantly from the trebles. He had rehearsed right, though I had written wrong. I am grateful beyond words. In conclusion I must thank you all very warmly for the kind reception that you've given to my little work, which I shall always associate with Telmington and its kind people. Thank you all again.'
Sir Cuthbert stepped down from the platform amid loud clapping and, on his way to resume his seat before the singing of the National Anthem, stooped to pick up something from the floor at Mr Tardell's feet.
'You've lost half a crown, I think, Rector? A hole in a trousers pocket perhaps.'
Mr Tardell's thoughts were apparently elsewhere; for his reply was most inconsequent.
'Oh! no, I never take bets,' he said.
The news of Mrs Parlington's death in the Eldonhall train smash was in the newspapers next morning. She was travelling back to Wolmingham from a day's visit to her lawyer in London and was in the carriage next behind the engine that was completely telescoped. Her neck was broken and death must have been instantaneous. Shortly after breakfast Dr Wrenshall called on three of his leading sopranos, to enquire why they had sung A instead of F and so won him unmerited commendation from Sir Cuthbert. The first replied that she didn't know that she had sung A; the second that she supposed that she had just followed the others; and the third that the higher note seemed somehow to be in the air and she simply had to sing it.
He then walked up to the rectory, where he saw the doctor's dogcart standing outside the gate.
'You can go in for a minute or so,' Dr Holmbush said, 'but the rector's running a high temperature and has passed a sleepless night. He wants to see you though, about something to do with last night's concert; and he'd better get it off his chest, if he doesn't take too long about it.'
Dr Wrenshall listened sympathetically, but incredulously, to the rector's account of what he had seen and heard in the village hall. The fever had probably already been on him, Dr Wrenshall surmised, and given rise to delirious fancies. The silly message from the Psychic Circle might have suggested them perhaps. Back in his own house, despite such scepticism, Dr Wrenshall took the trouble to look in his newspaper again for the exact time of the Eldonhall accident, and to compare it with that of the interval in last evening's concert.
'Not that it signifies anything,' he muttered to himself on finding that they more or less tallied, 'but I'm very sorry that we've lost Letitia. They'll miss her a lot here.'
They did. No previous Telmington funeral had been so largely attended. Among very many wreaths the most noteworthy was one from Dr Wrenshall. It was in the shape of a capital A. The rector recovered in time to officiate, but still looked poorly. The prefatory sentences and a psalm were sung; but there were no hymns.
Moonlight, and curtains not back yet from the cleaners! That was why Tom Cromley was still awake at one o'clock of this cold November night; and how he was able to see his wife, Kathleen, rise suddenly in her bed and sit rigidly upright. Tired, and in no mood for conversation, he continued to lie still and pretended sleep. He watched her nevertheless until, again suddenly, she thrust an arm across the narrow space between their beds and clutched his eiderdown. It slipped across him and a corner of it brushed his face.
'Hullo, Kitty, what's up?' he asked in cross surprise.
'Hush, Tom! Can't you hear it?'
'That moaning, groaning noise. Listen—there!'
'Oh that? Why, it's only the hot-water pipes. They're bound to grunt and growl a bit at first. We started the stove going only a few hours ago, and there are probably air locks. One can't expect perfection on a trial run. All the same, the radiators are piping hot; which is the main thing. You did a fine stroke of business, Kitty, in getting the stove so cheap; and this house too. We couldn't have found a nicer one at double the price. Now lie down and go to sleep again, darling, and don't keep your ears waiting for noises, or you'll begin imagining them.'
'I'll try, Tom, and I'm so thankful you like our new home. It has been great fun, really, getting it all fixed up; but I wish—' The sentence was left unfinished, and merged into a little sigh.
'You wish what? Look here, Kitty, I hope you're not worrying about all that rubbishy talk of Aubrey Roddeck's.'
'No, not exactly; but I wish I'd never listened to him. There! I've taken another of my tablets, and ought to get to sleep quickly. You'd better do the same, darling. Thank Heaven, that horrid noise has stopped.'
Cromley did not like his wife's taking sleeping tablets; especially as she had no idea what they contained, and had been given them not by a doctor but by her artist friend, Miss Bevisham. What could be the cause of her insomnia? She had no physical weakness, he was sure, being of a strong athletic type and able to give him points at golf or tennis. Her nerve, too, was good at both games; even in matches and tournaments. Nor had she been nervy in other things until quite lately. On the contrary, lawyers and brokers, employed by her in the management of her inheritance from a godfather-uncle, had spoken to him of her business grip and quick brain. Of the rightness of their judgment he himself found proof in her running of household affairs; he had in fact added garage and garden to her domestic domain after his discovery that she could get much more out of the two men than he, and they less out of her than of him. He thus had nothing now to interfere with his work, which (as that of a regular writer for a leading daily, two weeklies and several monthlies) had become voluminous and exacting.
He was just as deeply in love with Kathleen as when he married her six years ago; and to the bonds of affection had been added those of gratitude. One grievous disappointment they equally shared. They had no children. Was it brooding over this, perhaps, that made Kathleen nervy and sleepless? The thought so worried him that he began fidgeting with quilt and pillows; but a moment later, as though symbolising the lifting of a load from his mind, he extracted his now lukewarm hot-water bottle from between the sheets and laid it on the bedside table. No: it definitely couldn't be that; for her insomnia had started suddenly, and he could put a date to it. It was the night following Roddeck's visit.
He cursed himself now for ever having asked Aubrey to stay with them. One might have guessed from his novels that he would introduce unusual, if not sinister, topics of conversation. But what was it that Aubrey had actually said? Kitty, he remembered, had been boasting about the bargain she had struck in getting house and land for five thousand five hundred. 'Cheap,' she had said, 'and the opposite of nasty.' It was then that Aubrey butted in with 'cheapness is never without cause: the vendor must have had good reason to get it off his hands.' 'What on earth do you mean,' Kitty had challenged, 'the place isn't haunted, you know, or anything of that sort.' 'Not haunted perhaps, but waiting', were, Cromley remembered quite clearly, the exact words of Aubrey's reply; but of the explanation that followed his recollection was less distinct. He must make an effort therefore to reconstruct it if, as he felt sure, it had been the root cause of Kathleen's trouble.
At this point he slipped out of bed, and crept silently on tiptoe to see whether she was yet asleep. Yes—and peacefully. Reassured, he climbed back again and braced himself for an inquisition of his memory. Present perception, Aubrey had said, is a sense-stream trickling between the sludge of the past and the sands of the future; ever eating away the latter and depositing it on the former. On this stream fall many reflections, sometimes of things upon its alluvial bank and sometimes, though less often, of things that loom upon the other. Most often of all, the rippling of the stream over pebbles and shells prevents its reflecting anything. Of Roddeck's explanation of this simile Cromley found it impossible to recollect anything intelligible, except that Aubrey had gone on to claim for himself an ability to sense in the atmosphere of a house (such was his jargon) reflections of its past, in which case he classified it as 'haunted', or of its future, in which case he categorised it as 'waiting'. He himself, he had concluded, would prefer the former sort of house to the latter.
Kathleen, Tom remembered with a grin, had paid Aubrey back in his own coin by asking him whether he did not feel that her house might be waiting for his early departure. They had all three laughed at this retort, but rather a stagy sort of laugh; and the thought of play-acting reminded Tom that Roddeck had said that 'waiting' houses always gave him the feeling of an empty scene on the stage before the entrance of actors.
'Damn Aubrey,' muttered Cromley; 'that's three o'clock striking, and not a wink of sleep so far. I must get all this business off my mind till the morning: so now for counting sheep.'
Sleep did come to him at last; but with a foolish dream, in which he and his wife were paddling in a little stream between two banks. He was picking from it little stones and shells, while Kathleen looked as though she were trying to skim off from its surface some dark reflections from either bank.
Mrs Cromley's insomnia grew no better. Her pride in Thurbourne Manor was unabated; but her enjoyment of it marred by recurrent fits of depression. For the first time in their married life Tom found her not always quite sure of herself. Until now she had been in the habit of looking through the advertisement columns of newspapers in search of bargains. That was how she had picked up the central-heating stove so cheaply. A notice in the Stokehampton Mercury had invited offers for it to be sent to a post-box number; and their surprise had been great when a small lorry drove up the back drive three days later, with the stove aboard, and its owner prepared to deliver it on payment of the modest sum she had offered. Tom, with previous experience of such stoves (it was a No. 3 Keepalite), had inspected and approved; and the stove was fixed up for them next day by old Fennings, a retired plumber, in place of the old-fashioned and worn-out fuel-eater that they had found in the house.
In her present changed mood Mrs Cromley was no longer on the look-out for bargains, and even began to consult her husband before placing the most ordinary orders for household goods on well-established firms. She would also examine such purchases on delivery with a strange air of suspicion. One day, for instance, he found her gazing intently at a new meat-saw, which she had unwrapped on the hall table.
'I suppose,' she said, avoiding his glance of inquiry, 'that surgeons have to use something of this sort?'
'For amputations, yes: but I've never been in an operating theatre, nor want to for that matter.'
'No; it's a horrid-looking thing; but cook insisted on our having one, though I can't imagine what she wants it for. I always order small joints. I shall hide it in the tool cupboard.'
'Very well, but it may be wanted if Sir Matthew sends us venison again next year.'
'I detest venison,' Mrs Cromley muttered crossly, very far from her usual self.
Little outbursts of this kind were becoming of daily occurrence; so much so that her husband began to think of seeking medical advice. They and her insomnia must be interconnected; but which was cause and which effect? Or were both the result of some third trouble? It would be interesting to see what, if any, effect Christmas with the Bridleys at Hartlingsea would have on her condition. He would not, Tom decided, consult any doctors until the new year.
Sir Matthew and Lady Bridley were excellent as host and hostess and the house party was convivial. In such surroundings Mrs Cromley soon regained sleep and normality. But on return to Thurbourne the former symptoms began to reappear, and her husband's work to suffer from his anxiety. Then, in mid January, she went down with influenza; but to his surprise and relief physical illness seemed to improve rather than aggravate her mental malaise. It was not until she was convalescing that fits of irritability and depression again set in. A possible clue to their causation was soon to be furnished by a trivial accident.
Although she was no longer in bed, the doctor would still not allow her downstairs. As he sat with her in the bedroom one evening she asked Tom to bring up her writing portfolio from the library, and on the way back there fell from it a thin notebook. He had unconsciously swung it against the banisters. Stooping to pick the book up he noticed, on the page at which it had fallen open, a newspaper cutting. The headline was 'WILL MURDER OUT?' Hurriedly putting the book back in the portfolio Cromley decided to take an early opportunity of a further look at it; for why had his wife taken and kept a cutting of that sort?
He had not to wait long. The same evening, after supper, Kathleen asked him to read aloud to her; and he had not droned more than three or four pages before he saw that she was asleep. That was good, for she had slept little the night before. He soon had the notebook out of the portfolio, and looked first for the newspaper cutting. It was not too long for reproduction here.
WILL MURDER OUT?
It is credibly reported that the incoming tenant of a house in this vicinity has found in his vegetable plot certain remains; which may afford some explanation of the sudden departure, without address given, of his predecessor; also perhaps of the previous disappearance of the latter's housekeeper. Complaints made by neighbours of disagreeable odours from a stove chimney may or may not prove to be of relevance to police investigations now understood to be in hand.
The name of the newspaper was not on the cutting, but the greenish paper and the wording of the report were suggestive beyond doubt of the Stokehampton Mercury. Ever since its proprietor, old Mr Catchwater, had been mulcted in heavy damages for an article about hauntings at Tresswell Court, the editor had been under strict orders not to insert any local news that could be represented as likely to cause depreciation of the value of any specified premises or property. But fancy printing such stuff; and fancy (Cromley frowned at the thought) cutting it out and pasting it in a notebook!
Puzzled and discomfited he turned to the other pages. Many were blank; others contained addresses, recipes, prescriptions, names of books, new stitches for knitting, a list of insecticides for the garden, and so on, uninterestingly, to the last page. At the top of this was written 'Quotations' and the entries, only two, were in manuscript. The first was from the Bible:
Until a time and times and the dividing of time. Dan. vii, 25.
Under this was a note in pencil: 'But see Revised Version and Rev. xii, 14.' Odd, thought Cromley, for his wife was no Bible reader. The second quotation was from Aubrey Roddeck's last published novel, Arrival Platform, and ran as follows:
We are prisoners set to quarry in a crevice between the cliff-face of the future and the slag-heap of the past. At any moment either may cave in and fall on us.
Having put the notebook into the portfolio Cromley lit a cigarette and sat down to think things out. His wife slept on.
Tom Cromley's meeting next day with Colonel Honeywood, the Chief Constable, in the Stokehampton Club was not, so far as the former was concerned, accidental. He knew the Colonel to be in the habit of lunching there on Tuesdays, and this was not the first time that they had sat down together at the same table. They had been contemporaries at Winchingham and Oxbridge.
'Anything behind that rubbish in the Mercury, some weeks ago, about human remains being found in somebody's garden, Colonel?'
'More than I like, I'm afraid; bits of a body buried in the fowl run, and the rest of it, probably, burnt in a stove. The Mercury made a boss shot about the housekeeper, though. She left to take up another job, and is alive and kicking somewhere near Penchester.'
'Any clue yet as to murderer or victim?'
'No, but one or two pointers. We're pretty sure now that no killing was done down our way; only disposal of a body, and not necessarily a murdered one. That's all I can say at present.'
'What sort of stove was it?' asked Cromley; aware, as he put the question, of its oddity.
The Colonel slowly helped himself to salt and mustard before reply. 'I rather think, Cromley,' he said, 'that I know the real question at the back of your mind; and it may save you further beating about the bush if I answer it at once. The new tenant of the house, when reporting the unpleasant find in his garden, asked whether we had any objection to his removing the stove forthwith. He didn't fancy its associations. We agreed; on condition that he gave us details of its disposal for our future reference, should need arise. He advertised it in the Mercury; and, as I believe you to have already guessed, the purchaser was Mrs Cromley. Well, you've got a first-rate stove, but I wouldn't let your wife get any inkling of its past history, if I were you: women are so imaginative. I've a Keepalite No. 3 myself, by the way, and wouldn't mind feeding it with little bits off more than one person I could name!'
This little joke, as the Colonel intended, enabled them to drop the subject with a feeble laugh; and their talk shifted to vagaries of the weather and prophecies about the coming bye-election.
On the drive home Cromley decided that he must tell Kathleen of his verification of what, he was sure, had been her suspicions. He knew now why she had been so upset by moanings and fizzlings in the hot-water pipes. His sharing with her the facts about the stove would, he told himself, reassure her. What a pity she had kept her suspicion to herself! Or would he, perhaps, if she had told him, have merely exhorted her to put foolish fancies out of her pretty head? Anyhow, it was for him to do the telling now. Better wait though, he reflected, till she was quite recovered from the 'flu. In the meantime he would drop a line to Roddeck and warn him not to make trouble for his friends in future by his insane mystifications. Back, therefore, at Thurbourne he went to his desk and wrote as follows.
MY DEAR AUBREY
I feel it right to let you know that ever since your stay with us Kathleen has suffered considerably from nerve trouble. Some of your quaint theories and metaphors about the past, present and future have stuck in her mind and made it most uneasy. I know you well enough to be sure that you would be the last man wittingly to cause anxiety to a lady friend and that is why I write this letter. You have probably never had cause to consider the effect of your fantasies (is this the right word?) on an unsophisticated mind. Even such a remark as yours about cheapness never being without cause may lead to sinister speculation. Indeed, to be quite frank, I do not think that my wife has been quite happy about this house since you said that to her. I am sorry to have to write this but, as I said at the beginning of this letter, I feel in conscience bound to let you know. With all good wishes.
The letter was posted that evening.
The scene now is Lestwick House, in Northshire, where Aubrey Roddeck was staying the night with Lord Henry Hoverly. Lady Henry being on a visit to friends in Ireland, the two men sat alone in the library after dinner. They were second cousins, Aubrey's mother having been a Crimley-Hoverly; but their acquaintance had arisen not out of their family connection but from Lord Henry's partnership in the firm which published Roddeck's novels.
'I don't much care,' Lord Henry was saying, 'for modern tendencies in art, literature or music. There seems to be in all three a spirit of revolt from rhyme or reason, a sort of constitutionalising of anarchy. I noticed in last week's Cosmos that even that sane chap Cromley is catching the infection. By the way, do you remember telling me that his wife had bought Thurbourne Manor, the house that I've always had an eye on? It used once to belong to the Hoverly family; in Stuart times I think.'
'I remember your saying that you'd give me a thousand guineas if I could induce her to sell it to you.'
'Not guineas, Aubrey, pounds.'
'Well, make it guineas and I believe that I could do the trick for you.'
'We'll make it guineas then; but no tricks, mind you. You said before that nothing would induce her to part with it, but I'd willingly give ten thousand; a good deal more than it would fetch in the market.'
'Not inclusive of my commission of a thousand guineas, I hope?'
'No, that would be by way of charity to an indigent cousin or undeserving author. But seriously, Aubrey, you seem to possess unusual powers of persuasion. You got that house at Badwood for the Frannocks, and the old churchyard cottage at Mistlebury for—I've forgotten whom. How do you manage to do it?'
'Oh! I just put wanted houses on my waiting list; throw out a hint or two perhaps, if occasion offers, and bide my time. For instance, when I stayed at Thurbourne, Mrs Cromley struck me as not finding the house as comfortable as she had expected; and I expressed a sympathetic understanding of her disappointment. To my mind the Cromleys and Thurbourne Manor somehow just don't fit; and the thought occurred to me that the next time I stayed there it might be as guest of a noble cousin and with a thousand guineas in my pocket!'
'Well, you seem to make money easily,' grunted Lord Henry, 'and to my taste rather nastily. You haven't, I suppose, got your eye on this place for anybody, should I get Thurbourne?'
'No, my bent is to get houses at the lowest possible price; and I can't see you parting with Lestwick for a song, unless—'
'Oh, nothing! I was stupidly thinking of somewhere else. Sorry. By the way, I notice that you've had the archway into the old north wing built up. Hardly an architectural improvement is it?'
'No, but my wife was always complaining of draughts.'
One feels them quite unaccountably in old buildings, doesn't one? You'll both be more comfortable at Thurbourne, if only I can induce the Cromleys to sell.'
It would be an hour nearer to London, that's its main attraction for me. But look here, Aubrey, don't you go spreading it abroad that this house is draughty.'
'Ah! Lady Henry imagined it, did she? That's another drawback to old houses. People begin imagining things, especially women when they're left alone.'
Lord Henry was plainly annoyed by the turn which their conversation had taken. 'I wish, Aubrey,' he said, 'that you wouldn't talk like a character in your books. I know nothing about people's imaginations, and have no truck with spooks or anything of that sort.'
'But I said nothing about spooks.'
'No, but I could see that you were leading up to it. Well, I'm off to bed. Switch the light off on the landing, will you, when you come up.'
'Certainly, and it won't be long before I turn in too. I've only got one letter to write. Good night.'
Roddeck's one letter ran as follows:
MY DEAR TOM
Thank you so much for writing to me about poor Kathleen's neurosis. There is certainly no call for any but plain words between old friends. I should feel happier about her than I do if I could share your belief that my idle talk had any causal connection with what you report. I am however certain that her trouble had begun before my short stay with you. As you know I am critically observant of people's psychology. The modern novelist has to be. Very soon after my arrival at Thurbourne her too enthusiastic references to the bargain which she had made in her purchase of the house indicated to me beyond doubt her actual disappointment in, even dislike of, it. This however did not surprise me because nature has endowed me with the faculty of sensing the past and future associations of a building, an unpleasant sort of intuition that I would much rather not possess. On stepping inside your hall I was at once affected by a presentiment of not far distant tragedy. I hate writing this, but as you have been frank with me I must be equally so with you. Should you and your wife (as I much hope may be the case, in your own interest) think of moving elsewhere I believe that I could prevail on my host here, Lord Henry Hoverly, to offer almost twice as much for Thurbourne Manor as she gave for it. It used, as you probably know, to belong to the Hoverly family and a return to ancestral proprietorship might perhaps mitigate, if not dispel, the ominous atmosphere that I so vividly sensed. Be that as it may I shall not of course breathe a word to Lord Henry about my apprehensions. Caveat emptor!
Having inscribed, stamped and sealed the envelope Roddeck looked at the clock as it struck eleven, smiled, and murmured purringly to himself 'a thousand guineas!' And so to bed.
'Why of course, darling, we'll sell at that price,' Mrs Cromley exclaimed, 'and there's no need to bother about replacing the stove. It seems quite providential, doesn't it, for we can now store the furniture and make our promised visit to your brother in New Zealand. It'll do your writing good to have a change of scene, and you can send your stuff to the papers by this new air mail. So that's that.'
That was that. Tom, overjoyed at his wife's recovery, fell in at once with her eager plans; and the lawyers were instructed to put through the transfer of Thurbourne Manor to Lord Henry Hoverly for a consideration of ten thousand pounds. By midsummer the ownership had passed to him.
Aubrey Roddeck saw the Cromleys off by the boat train from London. He rather overplayed, Tom thought, the rôle of benefactor; but of course they had good reason to be grateful to him. The voyage out was entirely enjoyable; calm seas, a pleasant lot of fellow passengers, and a well-found and well-run ship. At the journey's end they found New Zealand so much to their liking that they accepted the invitation of Tom's brother to stay over Christmas.
It was two mornings or so after Christmas that their host tossed a newspaper across the breakfast table with the words 'Column five on the second page will interest you both.' It was a telegram from a London Correspondent, reporting the death of the novelist Aubrey Roddeck. He was spending Christmas, they read, with Lord Henry Hoverly at Thurbourne Manor, when a fire broke out in the furnace room as a result of logs and firewood being stacked too near the stove. Mr Roddeck, who was sleeping in the room above, jumped from its window in ignorance, presumably, of there being a paved terrace between house and lawn. The Stokehampton Fire Brigade got the fire under quickly and prevented its spreading to the rest of the mansion. Had only Mr Roddeck preserved presence of mind, he could have made his escape by a door leading into a back passage. But, it was surmised, he was too stupefied by the fumes.
Mrs Cromley sat staring out of the window. Then, turning to her husband, 'Poor Aubrey!' she said, 'So his premonition was true. He must have felt the walls about to cave in on him!'
Collinson's Kongea, published in 1883, stated the highlands of that Colony to be 'well suited for coffee or spice gardens: excepting the Nywedda valley, which is rendered unfit for human habitation by the miasma exhaled from its marshland.' Present-day passengers, who watch their ship being loaded at Takeokuta wharves with case after case, and crate after crate, all stencilled 'Nywedda Produce', might guess Collinson to have been misinformed. He was right, however, according to the terminology and medical science of his day; the habitability of the valley began only with the completion of a great drainage scheme round about 1908. Until then it was devoid of population, save for one solitary individual, of whom and whose fate the pages that follow will give some account.
Of Hilary Hillbarn's origin and history before his arrival in Kongea, at the end of 1895, there is no record. The papers dealing with his appointment as Assistant Entomologist to the Takeokuta Museum must have been lost in the fire that later destroyed the curator's office. He was not a Colonial Office recruit, or there would have been despatches about him in the Secretariat record room. His contemporaries in the museum remember him as reticent, secretive, unsocial and pedantic. The incoming mails brought no letters for him, and he made no friends in Kongea.
The work which he was set to do was that of a field collector, many of the museum specimens standing at that time in need of amplification or replacement. The consequent expeditions into the jungle proved most congenial to Hillbarn. His brief periodical returns to Takeokuta and civilisation were dictated by the necessity of replenishing provisions and handing over his collections. He never stayed long. As a collector he had great success. His specimens included not only some much-needed lepidoptera, but also a number of interesting arachnids hitherto unrepresented. The only cause of concern to the Director of Museums lay in a growing unwillingness on the part of Kongean assistant collectors and camp carriers to accompany Hillbarn on his explorations. This unwillingness culminated in point-blank refusal after the death in mid-jungle of an assistant collector. A formal departmental enquiry had to be instituted.
Complaint against Hillbarn at this enquiry was on two main grounds. First that all his collections were being made in the Nywedda valley, notoriously the home of devils and disease; secondly that all the work of collection was being done by Hillbarn himself, his assistants and subordinates being forced by him to spend their whole time in felling trees, and in building a large timber hut in the middle of the forest. To these charges Hillbarn replied that the Nywedda valley was of all Kongean regions the richest in insect life, hence his choice of it for his expeditions; and that a weatherproof hut was necessary for the treatment and conservation of his specimens.
The Kongeans being a not unreasonable folk, the Director was disinclined to accept these quite plausible replies without some degree of verification. He decided, therefore, wet season though it was, to go and see for himself. It was not a journey that he was to remember with pleasure. His party had to spend two nights in rain-sodden, leech-ridden scrub; was bogged twice; and had to make circuitous detours, hacking their way through dense and spiny undergrowth. This effort and labour was, however, rewarded on the second morning by the disclosure, in a small clearing on rising ground, not of a small hut but of a commodious two-roomed timber shed, walled with bamboo wattles and thatched with palmleaf.
'What else did you expect?' Hillbarn replied to the Director's expostulations, 'it's no use doing anything by halves: I shall need every inch of this space when I get the big specimens.'
'Big specimens?' asked the Director angrily. 'What the devil do you mean? Specimens of what.'
'Arachnids, you old fool,' Hillbarn barked back. 'You're blind if you didn't see them against the sunrise this morning. Just you wait till I bag one.'
The homeward journey was less physically arduous, for they followed the trail that they had hacked on the way up. It was, however, rendered even more uncomfortable for the Director by a growing conviction that he had to deal, not merely with an insubordinate officer, but with a mental case. He had been called an old fool in the hearing of English-speaking Kongean staff: well, he felt himself big enough to forget that; for Hillbarn was the best collector that he'd had. But this talk of arachnids against the sunrise and sunset (for Hillbarn affected to see them again that evening before they made camp) he could not bring himself to forget. Perhaps the young man, who boasted of being malaria-proof, had contracted it in some unusual form detrimental to mental stability. He would send him for medical examination as soon as they got back to Takeokuta.
It was not Hillbarn, however, but the Director who shortly underwent medical examination. He, with three others of the party, succumbed to a severe attack of malaria within a few days of their return, and before he had completed his notes of enquiry or recorded the findings. He lay in hospital a whole fortnight. On his return to duty, the Director found among the letters awaiting his personal attention a short memorandum from Hillbarn.
DIRECTOR OF MUSEUMS
I return herewith my salary cheque for April, having decided to terminate my service on forfeit of a month's pay as provided by clause 12 of my agreement.
May 5th, 1897
Nobody in Takeokuta could tell the Director where the signatory had gone. He had indeed become known to very few. Enquiry at shipping offices made it certain that he had not left the Colony: the Director therefore concluded that he must have taken up some job on an up-country plantation. A month or more later, however, he was reported by a headman to have been seen buying provisions in the little shop near Kechoba, which lies at the foot of the Nywedda valley. There were no plantations in the vicinity at that time, so the Director knew at once that he must have returned to that jungle shed. Well; he was no longer a Government servant, and the Department bore no responsibility for his movements. All that need or could be done was to inform the Commissioner of Police of his recent behaviour and of his present whereabouts. This the Director duly did.
The Nywedda valley is incorrectly so called. It is not a depression between two ranges of hills but an oval marshy basin, some three thousand feet above sea level, and roughly fifty square miles in area. There are high hills along seven-eighths of its circumference; the remaining eighth consists of a narrow ridge or saddle-back, at the western foot of which lies the small hamlet of Kechoba. This ridge is of granite, and unbroken by any watercourse. Were the rainfall more than it is, the basin would soon become a mountain lake instead of damp jungle interspersed with bogs and shallow meres.
More than one authority claimed parentage of a scheme to drain it by tunnelling through the ridge. The idea was, indeed, likely to occur to any engineer who inspected the terrain, or studied a contour map of the district. To finance such a project was a more difficult problem. Its cost was finally allocated, in equal shares, between the Colonial Government and a newly formed plantation company, to which the basin was appropriated under a ninety-nine year concession. This concession was instrumented and promulgated by special ordinance in I goo; an incidental effect of which was to alter the status of the region's solitary inhabitant from squatter to trespasser. He no longer camped on Crown land but on private property.
The necessity for Hillbarn's eviction might not have arisen, at any rate in the initial stages of the tunnel scheme, had it not been for his reputation among the local Kongeans. To them he had become the familiar, if not an impersonation, of evil spirits of the mountains. He was seen only when he emerged to obtain provisions at the Kechoba shop. These appearances became fewer as he gradually accustomed his digestion to a diet of jungle herbs and berries. His clothing diminished with each visit, and was finally standardised in a loincloth. His hair grew long and shaggy, covering not only his head and chin but also his legs, chest, arms and backs of the hands. It was a rusty grey. He walked barefoot; and the surface of his skin, where it was not covered by hair, was blotched with sores. The steel-blue eyes seemed set in a challenging stare; he answered neither greeting nor question.
When his stock of currency notes and coin had run out, Hillbarn traded upon the Kechoba shopkeeper's fear of him by taking goods without payment. The second time that he did so the shopman had summoned up courage to ask for it; but Hillbarn pointed menacingly to the hills, crooked his arms, moved them backwards and forwards like a crab, and blew a thin grey froth of saliva through tightly closed lips. This, to the Kongeans, was a sure sign of demoniacal possession. Hillbarn indeed may have intended such an interpretation.
The upshot was that, when the Survey and Public Works Departments received instructions to take levels and measurements for the tunnel scheme, not a single coolie could be induced to set foot in the valley so long as Hillbarn was at large.
The Surveyor-General appealed to the Commissioner of Police; but the latter professed powerlessness in the matter until Hillbarn should have received and acknowledged a formal notice to evacuate. But how serve such a notice on a man hiding in thick jungle? Both officers sought escape from this quandary by explaining their predicament to the Attorney-General.
'Well, well!' was his reply, 'it's a lucky thing that, in drafting the special ordinance, I had in mind that there might be nomad aborigines on whom notices could not be served. So I inserted a provision that notice can be given by proclamation. I'll draft one right away, and have it sent up for the Governor's signature. It'll have to be gazetted, of course, and posted conspicuously at Kechoba. When that's been done, your man will have ten days' grace in which to clear out.'
'But suppose he doesn't?'
'Ah! That's quite another matter. I never advise on hypothetical cases. We must first wait and see.'
The proclamation was duly issued. Its posting attracted quite a crowd of villagers outside the Kechoba shop. None of them could read it, being in English, but the Royal Arms at its top evoked their curiosity and admiration. It was, they supposed, some potent hieroglyphic that would strike terror into the man-devil. But of such comfortable doctrine they were rudely disillusioned next morning, when Hillbarn appeared at the shop-front, bent as usual on loot. He read the proclamation; slashed it into shreds with his jungle knife and, dashing into the shop, seized on one of the ledgers and tore from it some two dozen pages. These he set on the counter, and began writing on them with the shopman's pen and ink. He scribbled fiercely for more than an hour, every now and again savagely tearing into small scraps what he had just written. The shopman, in fear for his life, joined the gaping crowd outside.
Having at last produced a manifesto to his satisfaction he strode with it to where the proclamation had been posted, and pinned it up. Then, having made a larger rape of goods than usual from the shop, he made off into the jungle. Again nobody could read what was written; but a Kongean sub-magistrate, passing by on his return from circuit, declared it to be a bad sort of writing, unpinned it, and took it away with him to Takeokuta.
To the Commissioner of Police next morning it appeared a very had sort of writing. This is how it ran:
HILARY HILLBARN, of Nywedda KING
By conquest, LORD PROTECTOR of the Hills,
DEFENDER of the Forests,
EMPEROR of all that lives or lies within this vale,
Give by these presents to Our subjects GREETING.
WHEREAS by proclamation of a recent date
A governor of Kongea has presumed
That WE shall quit Our rightful Realm and Throne:
NOW KNOW YE that the said presumption WE
Do utterly contemn and set at nought.
WE shall continue here to reign and rule,
And peradventure he attempt by force
Our Person to evict, let him BEWARE:
For WE upon his emissaries
With unrelenting hand will quick unleash
The Hounds of Death, high-kennelled in the hills.
The Commissioner of Police grunted and frowned. He would have to show this disloyal nonsense to the Chief Secretary; perhaps to the Governor himself. At noon, therefore, we find him in the former's office, and at a quarter past the hour both officers are walking together towards Government House.
Sir Wilfrid Narrowgate prided himself on being able to see a thing quickly and state it shortly. 'Madman, rebel, or both,' he said, 'the fellow has got to be got out. We won't bring the Attorney-General in on it at this stage: it's easier to act in charity than in law. You've satisfied me that there's a sick man in the jungle; so I shall send a search party to bring him safely out. Here's my specification for the party; you two must settle its personnel. First, a Civil Servant of magisterial rank; second, a young medical officer; third, a gazetted police officer; fourth, a government surveyor who knows the lie of the land. All four must be good men in the jungle: we can't send natives with them if they are as scared as you say of Hillbarn. So the party must travel light: sandwiches and flasks in their haversacks; enough for two days. They must be prepared for violence, but not use it unless forced to. They must get the fellow out without injury to him or to themselves. We needn't prescribe methods now, or probe too curiously into them afterwards. Arrange for a wagonette to meet them at Kechoba on the return journey; and tell the P.M.O. to have accommodation ready at the Tenekka Asylum. That's all for the present; but let me know as soon as they've got their man and handed him over. That's when we may have to call in the Attorney-General.'
The Chief Secretary and Commissioner of Police discussed personnel for the expedition as they walked down from Government House. 'What I like about the Governor,' the Commissioner remarked, 'is the way he relieves one of responsibility.'
'Yes,' dryly assented the Chief Secretary, 'but not of work.'
The next day but one the search party set out for Kechoba. Its senior member, Hugh Milversom, Assistant District Officer of Karatta, was well known as a hunter of pig and big game: he knew his jungle well. Medical Officer Leonard Hatley, also from Karatta, and Frank Nearwell, Assistant Commissioner of Police, were next in age and official standing. The youngest was Tasman Copworth, a surveyor on agreement from Australia. All four were as physically fit and mentally spry as the purpose of their present expedition demanded.
They had discussed strategy over whiskies and soda the night before. If Hillbarn had any inkling of their search for him he would, Milversom thought, make off into the jungle and elude discovery. Their only hope of speedy contact lay in finding him at his hut. On this point they all agreed; and Nearwell, arguing from police experience, declared that it would be necessary for them to separate a mile downstream of the hut, and later converge on it simultaneously from the four points of the compass. This plan, Copworth objected, postulated the possibility of four men making an efficient cordon, which he felt to be absurd. They must keep together, and manage somehow to surprise their quarry.
At this Dr Hatley, who was making patterns with his forefinger on the marble-top table out of a splash of spilled soda water, began speaking in a low meditative tone. 'This fellow Hillbarn,' he said, 'has long been an enigma to us doctors. He ought to have died years ago. Malaria completely blotted out the local aborigines; so how has he, a soft-bred European, managed to survive? From all accounts he suffers from emaciation and scurvy; but just think of his dietary! In this hot-house climate, of course, nudity is not injurious, except...'
Hatley here making a premonitory pause, the others impatiently cut in with 'Except what?'
'Except that he can't possibly wander about naked at night at that altitude. As you know, the wind blows hard for eight out of the twelve months; and for an hour or so before dawn it is positively icy. It gets unpleasantly cool soon after sundown. Wait and see for yourselves tomorrow. It's particularly bad this season. We've a score of pneumonia cases in the Karatta hospital. Take my word for it, Hillbarn must keep to his hut of a night, and use blankets too. That's where we shall find him, if we time our arrival after dusk: a hundred to one on that.' The bet was not taken; for the others, though they had not thought of it before, agreed. So they planned their timetable accordingly. They could take things easily on the way up, clearing a path, wherever necessary, in order to facilitate their journey back with Hillbarn.
Their progress up the valley proved uneventful. It was dry underfoot, the weather fine and, owing to the wind, not oppressively hot. At about half-past five in the afternoon they found themselves on rising ground, from which Copworth's trained eyes were able to descry a small clearing, not more than a quarter of a mile away, and in its middle a brown patch which could be nothing but a hut or shed. The scrub round about them was now only breast-high, its branches and twigs bearded with tufts of a grey-green lichen. They decided, therefore, to sit down for a smoke and rest; for Hillbarn might not repair to his hut before sunset. They had not, however, sat long before there broke on their ears the clang of a pan or tin being struck six times.
'Six o'clock,' Nearwell laughed, 'Fancy the fellow beating the hours in deserted jungle!'
'I might do it myself,' mused Hatley. 'His mind may be travelling back to some old church clock striking across a village green. Even lunatics occasionally escape into the past.'
Milversom, who on hearing the clangs had made his way further up the rise, returned at this point to suggest that they might use what remained of daylight to get as near to the clearing as they could without being seen. This they proceeded to do; walking half-bent, and speaking only in undertones. Creeping, thus silently forward they came before very long up against the prostrate trunk of a felled tree, on the edge of the clearing. Peeping from behind it they could see the hut, a few chains distant, and its surround of half-grown coconuts, bread-fruit trees, plantains and chillies. From a slanting bamboo pole there hung by a piece of cord an inverted kerosene tin. A stick, lying on the ground below, evidenced its use as a gong. East and west of the pole two large stones had been set into the ground, each as big as a man could carry unaided.
Milversom was considering whether his party had better wait for complete darkness to veil their approach, or go forthwith to the hut, when they beheld Hillbarn hobbling feebly towards them. He had clearly injured his right leg; for he dragged it laboriously, using a stick. There was no chance, Milversom realised with relief, of his bolting into the jungle. As usual he wore a kind of loin-cloth, but supplemented this evening by a blanket hung down his back from the shoulders like an academic hood. Behind him slunk a very lean black cat, which, on reaching the bamboo pole, he hit at with his stick and drove away. Muttering something which his watchers could not overhear he then began to beat the tin, as though in imitation of the ringing of a bell for church. Indeed when the tolling had ceased it was plain to the four who spied on him that they were witnessing some sort of religious ritual; for he advanced to the large stone on the west side, made signs of beckoning towards the hills, and began to chant words which Milversom afterwards thus reconstructed from memory:
Creep down, creep down, grey spiders of the sky
And leave the cobweb clouds that ye have spun
Across the face of day;
For day now dies.
Creep down, creep down the brazen chain of rays
Flung by the sun aslant the western hills;
It shall not burn you,
For the sun now dies.
Creep down, creep down to weave a pall of mist
From hill to hill; so hide me from the stars,
Until the morrow dawn
And they too die.
Creep down, creep down; there is no moon to thwart
The workings of the night; and I have called
All shapes of Hell
To keep me company.
But none so dear to me, O spiders grey,
As beady belly slung from eight lean legs
Poised for a pounce
Or crouching low to spin.
What if you be invisible to such
As see not what I see, live not my life,
Have other thoughts than mine,
This makes you the more mine, me yours;
So do I bide the promised time when I
Grey spider shall become,
My manhood shed.
Creep down, Creep down, entoil the trespasser
In grey cocoon of death; so keep me free,
My dark soliloquy
At the close of this incantation Hillbarn limped back to the pole; gave the tin a loud bang and, peering this way and that, cried out 'I smell white men!'
'Your nose doesn't deceive you,' Milversom said, climbing over the tree trunk and signalling the others to follow. 'There are four of us here. How do you do?'
Hillbarn glared angrily at the extended hand. 'I do not know you,' he said, 'or what brings you here.'
'We've come to take you home with us tomorrow. The Governor's sent for you. He can't allow you to die here in the jungle, you know. You already look half-dead.'
'You must be brave men to venture here; but bravery kills more people than it saves. If you are alive, I will come with you tomorrow; but you will not be. They have already marked you.'
'My grey brothers. Come inside the hut. The sun is down.'
The inside of the hut was bare of furniture; but in a corner on top of a pile of leaves and rushes lay a heap of discoloured blankets. The floor was of trampled earth. In the middle of it a few logs smouldered, yielding little heat or light but emitting an acrid smoke, for which the palm-thatched roof offered no vent. It was consequently sooted over, and the fumes hung in layers below it.
The party had brought candles in their haversacks and now proceeded to light them, as the last of the twilight faded from the doorway. The resultant glimmer revealed only one thing of interest. There was a closed door in the wall or partition on the right-hand side of the entrance; presumably therefore a second room beyond. In front of it Hillbarn stood shivering, for the evening was already cold. Or was it from excitement? His eyes, now burning with defiance, were certainly those of a madman, and perhaps of a dangerous one.
'They are hungry,' he snarled, 'and will leap on you swiftly, but softly and silently. There may be worse deaths than yours, but none more noiseless. I bid you goodbye.'
At this he wrenched the shut door open.
Milversom afterwards confessed that his heart was in his mouth. Nearwell whipped out his service revolver, and Copworth had a hand on his jungle knife. Only Dr Hatley kept his eyes away from the opened door. They were focused keenly on Hillbarn.
Nothing emerged from the door, and they could see nothing but blackness beyond it.
'They invite you to see them first,' Hillbarn said; 'take your candles and look inside.'
They did so. In various positions crouched a large number of huge spiders; the body of each about the size of a coconut, the legs covered with a grey-green inch-long hairiness. They were not grouped on one level; some were on the floor, others clung to racks against the walls, yet others hung from the rafters. All were motionless.
Again Milversom's heart was in his mouth, and Copworth's fear broke out chokingly with 'God help us! Just look at the bloody things!' Nearwell pointed his revolver at the nearest of them. The doctor's gaze, however, was still riveted on Hillbarn, as though that were the quarter from which danger might come. He had in fact noticed, what the others had not, that since their entry into the hut Hillbarn had picked up from somewhere, and now held in his hand, a heavy chopper.
This atmosphere of apprehension and suspense was all of a sudden dispelled by a happening that in the recollection, but not at the time, appeared ludicrous. The lean black cat must have passed unnoticed through the door when Hillbarn opened it. It now sprang across the floor at some mouse or rat, and in doing so knocked over three or four of the spiders. The bodies, that had looked the size of coconuts, were now revealed as coconuts; the legs as twigs with lichen on them. Hillbarn had modelled them into spiders so realistically that they would have deceived in a stronger light than that of the candles. Dr Hatley, on a considered review of the case, had no doubt that the wretched man believed himself to have endowed them with life.
There was no time for thought at the moment, for a horrible scene ensued. Hillbarn lurched savagely forward; his injured leg gave way beneath him, and he crashed headlong to the floor, knocking over more of the spiders and pinning the cat under his left elbow. With the chopper in his right hand he hacked at its protruding forelegs; and then, grabbing its tail with his left, half-decapitated it. Twistily struggling to a kneeling posture he held the shuddering animal above his head, its blood dripping on to his hair and forehead, and hurled it against the wall. With a circular swing of the chopper he next smashed a couple of the spiders that lay nearest to him, and then giddily attempted to regain his feet.
'Get that chopper from him,' shouted Hatley; and Milversom, with a kick at his right wrist, sent it clattering to the ground. In an instant Nearwell and Copworth had closed with him, hauled him erect and propped him against the wall. It needed their full strength to hold him upright, for he seemed suddenly to have gone limp and inarticulate.
'Lay him down on the blankets, please,' the doctor ordered in a professional tone, 'I rather fancy he's finished.'
He was. Whatever store of vitality there may have been in his underfed, underclothed body, it had been squandered in that final paroxysm of rage and violence. As Hatley examined it now upon the bed of leaves and rushes there was neither breath nor heartbeat. Hilary Hillbarn was dead.
There was nothing more that they could do that night; so, having pulled palm fronds from the roof and laid them as mats before the fire, they lay down, ate some sandwiches, drank from their flasks, and talked themselves into such sleep as they managed to get.
The presence at Hillbarn's passing of a magistrate, doctor and senior officer of police would, without doubt or question under Kongean law, have enabled immediate interment. Milversom, however, reminded his colleagues of the Kongean proverb that 'every planting makes a haunting'. To leave the corpse in that valley would be to make an evil reputation worse. They slung it, therefore, in a blanket from a long bamboo and, shouldering it, marvelled at the lightness of their burden. It was little heavier than a child.
Starting at dawn they reached the Kechoba shop by three o'clock. The wagonette was there; and the body was duly taken to the Takeokuta mortuary.
Next day the four members of the search party were summoned to the Secreta.
'The Governor wishes me to thank you for your services,' the Chief Secretary told them, 'having heard the main gist of your report from the Commissioner of Police. His Excellency was greatly distressed about the cat. He has come across a passage in an old Museum Journal which he thinks might interest you. You will find it on the writing-table in the waiting-room, in case any of you would like to take a note. His Excellency has marked the passage in pencil on page thirty-seven.'
The Museum Journal was that of the third quarter of 1893, and the marked passage read as follows:
...but the Kongean araneae have been insufficiently collected, and many of the museum specimens are not in a condition to ensure correct identification. One of the avicularia appears to be of a size hitherto unreported from any tropical region; but the specimen is too disintegrated to admit of exact measurement. It may have been this species that gave rise to the legend, current within living memory among the aborigines, of man-hunting spiders. The legend is no longer heard, but there survives in some districts a superstition of mountain spirits that assume a visible but impalpable arachnid form. Medicine men and warlocks are still alluded to in such districts as 'those who behold the eight-legged ones', and a popular but fanciful derivation of the name Nywedda is from nyiva (leg) and edda (eight). For its true derivation the reader is referred to the Rev Josiah Hughson's monograph on Some Place Names in Western Kongea.
Milverson, who had been holding the book, suddenly dropped it. There had crept out on to his hand, from the hollow back-cloth, a small but seemingly vicious grey spider.
A small party sat up in the parlour of Brindlestone Manor to see in the new year. There were five of them, three men and two women. The stillness of a windless frosty night and the warm glow of a log fire made them sleepy; yet it was only a quarter past ten.
'I vote we each tell a ghost story to keep ourselves awake,' said the youngest of the men. 'I want to practise my shorthand and I'll try jotting them down.'
The speaker was Vernon Ruthwell, recently appointed to the Colonial Service and due to sail for Kongea in six weeks' time. His idea was to spice the routine of an administrative career with attempts at authorship. Had he not edited a college magazine and taken English and French literature in the schools? That was why he had during his last three vacations attended a course in typewriting and shorthand. He felt that he had it in him to observe, describe and characterise. The other members of the party were Vernon's paternal uncle, Philip; Aunt Susan, his wife; Miss Clara Godwinstowe, on a Christmas and new year visit from Telmington; and a Mr Felworth who, having lately rented the manor cottage, had been asked out of neighbourliness to drop in for the evening. These four persons require but little introduction. Philip Ruthwell typified the moderately successful business man, with just a tinge of pomposity; Mrs Ruthwell the comfortable not over-brainy wife. Miss Godwinstowe was an elderly and somewhat assertive spinster, proudly possessed of a 'psychic ego', whatever she meant by that. Readers of an earlier story may remember her as foundress of the Telmington Psychic Circle. Of Mr Felworth his present companions knew little or nothing. His past history, if at all reflected in his present conversation, might have been dull. His contributions to the evening's entertainment had so far been an occasional 'yes', 'no', 'exactly' or 'quite'; a question as to when the church bells would be likely to start ringing; and his opinion that it was more cheerful to hear them in company than alone.
Vernon's proposal of ghost stories, however, moved him to one further remark. 'You will excuse my being only a listener, I hope,' he said, 'for I always feel the telling of ghost stories to be a trifle incautious.'
'By Jove, that's a splendid introduction!' laughed Vernon. 'You've certainly made your contribution, Mr Felworth. The telling of ghost stories incautious! One couldn't improve on that. Now I'm going to sit at the desk with my notebook and the reading-lamp. We'll have the other lights off. There! Why the fire's burning a bit blue already, isn't it? Well now; ladies first, I think; you must start off, Aunt Susan.'
'I wish that you hadn't left your chair, Vernon,' complained Mrs Ruthwell; 'having this empty place beside me makes me feel quite creepy,'
'Ah! that's the atmosphere we want. Now go ahead, Aunt Susan, and trot us out a real grisly.'
'Well, I can't very well do that, I'm afraid, for I've never really seen a ghost or anything of that sort: unless—'
'Unless what; Susan?' said her husband. 'You're not going to tell us about that bedside companion, I hope.'
'Don't be foolish, Philip. Companion indeed! Why I've not seen him more than twice. Anyhow he's the only thing in the ghost line that I ever came across, and if you want a story from me it's got to be him or nothing.'
'That's right, Aunt Susan,' interposed Vernon, 'go straight ahead and don't mind Uncle Philip. His turn'll come next.'
'Well, it's difficult to know exactly where to begin, but looking back now I think that it all started with a whisky advertisement. You probably all remember that picture of a man in green velvet coat, chocolate breeches, top-boots and an eyeglass. Well, the picture caught my fancy as a little girl, and I used to try to copy it in my exercise book with pencil and paint. Awful splodges I made, too, and I used to feel that the man in the advertisement was laughing at them. Quite kindly, though. Then one day I cut him out from the cover of a Christmas number, put him into a frame and hung him on my bedroom wall. From there he seemed to smile at me more than ever. At Christmas time I would put a tuft of mistletoe or sprig of holly over him; sometimes too a daisy-chain in spring, or a rose in summer. Then, when my room was repapered, the frame got taken down and somehow mislaid and lost. My parents told me that anyhow I had grown too old for that sort of picture, and I remember that they hung up in its stead an engraving of "The Soul's Awakening!" Oh! How I hated that girl! I used often to turn the picture back to front. Well, I suppose that I gradually forgot about the whisky man; but several years later (I remember it was the night before Dr Benstead's funeral) I woke up in the dark to see him sitting in the chair at my bedside; not a flat four-inch figure as in the advertisement, but a real full-size man. Although everything else in the room was pitch-black, his face and body seemed to be in bright daylight. I could see the green of his coat and his chocolate breeches quite clearly; and somehow it all seemed quite right and natural. He was smiling at me. "Hullo Johnny," I said, for I always thought of him as Johnny, "How d'you do?" With that I held out a hand to shake his and then, as I did so, he began to fade and melt away; not abruptly but very very quickly, and the last thing to go was his smile. I thought afterwards of the cat's grin in the Alice book, but not at the time. All I was thinking of then was as to whether I had really been awake; but I knew that I must have, for I had heard a clock strike three while he was sitting there, and I never hear clocks strike when I'm asleep.'
'A projected dream-image, obviously,' murmured Miss Godwinstowe.
'Well,' continued Mrs Ruthwell, 'I only saw him once again, and that was long afterwards; when I was married, I think. Why, yes, it must have been; because I remember little Paul was on his way, and my mother was so excited at the prospect of having a grandchild. I must have gone down to see her without you, Philip, as I was given my old little single-bedded room. Well, the whisky man came and sat and smiled and faded away, just as he did before. It was a Sunday night, I remember, because we had special prayers in church that morning for the dedication of a stained-glass window in memory of Dr Benstead; and mother had left her glasses behind, and put a lozenge into the plate in mistake for a threepenny bit. Well; there's nothing very exciting in what I've told you, I'm afraid, but that's all.'
'No, Susan,' said Miss Godwinstowe in her deep husky voice, 'that can't be all. Tell us now, did you ever know Dr Benstead personally?'
'Why yes, of course. He was our family doctor and such a dear man. It used to give me quite a thrill when he felt my pulse! It was a tragedy that he died so young, and unmarried too.'
Was he as good-looking as the whisky man, as you call him?'
'Well naturally he never dressed in a green velvet coat or chocolate breeches. He did wear an eyeglass, though, to look at one's tongue. In fact, though it's never occurred to me before, he was rather like the whisky man. I might almost say very like.'
'Exactly so, my dear Susan.'
'Why exactly so, Clara?'
'I'll explain to you tomorrow morning, dear, when we've got time to ourselves. The night of the funeral and the night of the memorial service; just what I would have expected! Very natural. And now let's hear what your husband may have to tell us in the way of a ghost story.'
Mr Ruthwell cleared his throat. 'I was glad,' he said, 'to hear Miss Godwinstowe, with her long experience of psychic phenomena, use the word "natural" in regard to some point or points in my wife's narrative; for I most strongly disbelieve in anything supernatural. Than to use such a classification it is more honest to confess that our inability to explain, or even maybe to comprehend, certain phenomena is due to our imperfect cognition of the natural order. On the twin assumptions, which I predict that scientists will sooner or later verify and confirm, that personality survives physical dissolution, and that human perception is not limited to data furnished by the five physical senses, all that is ignorantly termed supernatural is natural. I cannot pretend to explain what I am about to tell you, but to future generations it might appear a very ordinary tale.'
His wife, his nephew and Miss Godwinstowe were restive under this prosy exordium; but they knew better than to bid Mr Ruthwell cut out the cackle and come to the horses; for, being of a disputatious bent, he would gladly have embarked on argument in preference to narrative. Finding a minute's pause unproductive of remark or question he cleared his throat once more and proceeded.
'As a boy I was brought up to regard talk of ghosts and their kind as taboo; my father called it silly and my mother sinful. Our Victorian ménage was certainly not such as to invite spectral visitation: everything and everybody were solid and substantial. Nevertheless there arose one day a topic for conversation which necessitated removal of my young brother and sister to their playroom before it could be discussed. It started by the vicar asking my father whether he ever used the footpath through the churchyard and, if so, whether he had noticed a row of headstones to the left of it. My father had; four of them. The vicar nodded and made some remark about the quaintness of their design before passing on to other topics of parochial interest. He stayed to dinner; and, when he rose to take his leave, my father, always ready for a short walk, said that he and I would see him part of the way home. It was bright moonlight and, as we reached the graveyard, the vicar pointed with his stick at a row, of headstones and said "Five, you see; but I suggest that you count them again tomorrow morning." On our way back to the house my father was silent, which was unusual in him, and, what was still more unusual, said nothing to any of us at breakfast next morning; except to tell my mother that he had just been out for a stroll and would she mind coming into the study a moment to see about ordering flower seeds?
'Later the same morning my mother asked me to walk with her to the village. She chose the church path. As we passed through the lych gate, I saw her glance curiously to the left and then with her right forefinger touch in turn the four knuckles of her left hand. Whatever she was looking at seemed to puzzle her. Following the direction of her eyes I noticed, to my surprise, that where last night there had been five headstones there were now only four. The vicar had remarked upon the peculiarity of their design; and what he had meant by that was now, in the daylight, plain to see. At the top of each had been carved what presumably was meant to be an urn but unquestionably resembled a more familiar and less ornamental vessel. Beneath the urns, over dates of birth and death, were cut the names of Matthew Punnings, Mark Punnings, Luke Punnings and John Punnings. Like my father on the previous evening, my mother maintained an unwonted silence for the rest of our walk. She did not even answer me when I said that one of the headstones seemed to be missing.
'During the remainder of my Easter holidays my father made a nightly excursion to the graveyard, taking a lantern with him if there was no moon. He was a methodical man, and I noticed on his study table one day a time schedule, neatly ruled and lined, made out for these inspections. In the right-hand column a space was left for daily entries. When I went back to school for the summer term all entries up to that date consisted of the figure 5.
'My parents wrote nothing about this matter in their weekly letter to me; but on the second day of the summer holidays there was a sort of meeting in my father's study. The vicar was there, Mr Carrowlake from the Hall, my father and mother, old Tetteridge the sexton, and a man whom I did not recognise but who turned out later to be a monumental mason from Eaglebury. As a reward for having brought back with me from school a prize for English Essay I was told that I might sit in the window seat and try my hand at jotting down some account of what was said. My father announced his intention of correcting it afterwards; so I had to listen with particular attention. My opinion is that boys should be set to a task like that regularly in the course of their education; it stimulates their powers of attention and promotes accuracy.'
Mr Ruthwell paused here for a moment in the hope that one of his listeners might combat this opinion; but, their silence remaining unbroken, he again cleared his throat and resumed his story.
'My father began proceedings by saying that their object in meeting together that morning was to elucidate certain points concerning the Punnings gravestones; and that, as Mr Smith (that was the monumental mason's name) wanted to get back to Eaglebury as soon as possible, they would seek his assistance first. Mr Punnings, they learned from him, had ordered stones for the graves of his five sons, who had predeceased him. Four of them, Mr Smith believed, had died of diphtheria or something to do with bad drains. The fifth had been a sailor and died a year or so later down Coastport way, the body being brought home for burial. By that time the other four stones were nearly ready for erection, and old Mr Punnings called in at their shop and altered his order from four to five. "I've outlived the whole bunch," he said. "They took after their mother, not me. You'd better put up all five stones at the same time, for I don't want to pay for extra cartage." Mr Smith remembered those words, for they had struck him as hard-spoken. He remembered, too, putting up the stones himself; for he was a young man then and sent by his father to do the outdoor jobs. The five graves were side by side, and he fixed a stone at the head of each in a straight row. They weren't bad stones but spoilt, he thought, by old Mr Punnings having insisted that the urns should have only one handle and not show any narrowing at the base. His father hadn't liked doing it; but an order was an order. That was all that Mr Smith could tell; he hadn't inspected the stones since and didn't want to, as he didn't consider them a good advertisement for his business; for which he ended by humbly soliciting the future patronage of all present.
'After Smith's departure old Tetteridge was interrogated, and I can give you what he told us in pretty well his own words; for, as you will remember, I was taking notes of what was said. "If I didn't know ole Punnings," he began, "I'd like to know who did! I 'adn't the buryin' of 'im, though, because 'e died when visiting 'is brother up in Scotland and were put to earth there. What Mr Smith 'as told about them stones were true, but 'e told only 'alf. The fifth stone were the dead spit of t'other four 'cept for the name, which was Paul. But it 'adn't stood more'n a year afore Paul's widder come up out of Coastport and worrited ole Punnings for money what to buy winter clothes with. Now ole Punnings were never no mild-spoken man, and 'is boast 'ad always been to have got 'is five sons off 'is 'ands sooner than most, so 'e flares up proper at the widder, and 'you come with me,' 'e says, 'and I'll show you what I care for you and your dead 'un.' So 'e takes 'er up to churchyard, with a crowbar in 'is 'and; and there I seed 'im, for I was a-diggin' Mrs Purves's grave close by, lay 'old on Paul's 'eadstone, wrench it sideways, push it over, and crack it in three pieces with 'is crowbar. 'Don't you go telling no tales to Parson,' 'e shouts to me, 'for I paid for this 'ere stone and that be what I choose to do with it.' Well I ain't a one to make trouble, so as soon as 'e were gone, with the widder cryin' shame on 'im and 'ollerin', I tidies up the grave; and no questions arst. The pieces of the stone what 'ole Punnings 'ad broke 'll be at the bottom of the churchyard well, where I dropped 'em. But I reckon that son Paul got even with 'is ole dad for what 'e'd done; 'cos most nights arter that I spied ole Punnings walking up the church path, and one night I follers him and sees what he seed. But I ain't a one to make trouble and, 'cep' to say as the ten shillin' 'e offers me weren't enough, I says nothing; no, not to nobody 'cep' to young Mr Kirtle, what time 'e was a courtin' of Miss Apsney and 'imself see the fifth stone. ''Tain't no ghost, Tetteridge,' 'e says to me, 'for stones don't 'ave no sperrits. But there's a hinfluence 'ereabout,' 'e says, 'a powerful hinfluence as makes you see what you doesn't.' 'Same as gin and such Hike,' I answers: but 'No,' says 'e, 'for you needn't drink no gin but the hinfluence 'ereabout catches you unbeknownst, same as 'ooping-cough.'"'
'It was difficult to get Tetteridge to stop, now that he had got into his stride; but he was silenced at last by my father's mention of something awaiting him in a pint pot in the kitchen. What happened after he had gone is soon told, though there was lengthy discussion. At the joint expense of the rector, the squire and my father Mr Smith was commissioned to execute and erect a replica of the missing fifth stone; so that Paul's triumph over his father was rendered permanent and complete.'
'Interesting, very!' Miss Godwinstowe pronounced hastily in order to forestall any theorising on his tale by Mr Ruthwell, 'and I would much like to have had a word with Mr Kirtle. But now, Mr Vernon, it's your turn for a story.'
'No, no; it's your turn, Miss Godwinstowe,' objected Vernon. 'Ladies first, you know, and seniores priores.'
'I always tell my stories last, selecting them with due reference to what has been previously told.'
'Oh! In that case I'll do what I'm told, but I'm afraid that my story's a pretty rotten one. In point of fact it isn't mine at all, but one that was sent in anonymously to the College Magazine. We never publish anonymous contributions, though, so I just put it by. I can read it to you with the help of this desk lamp, for the writing's fairly legible. I warn you again that it's pretty rotten, but it's the best I can do, never having seen a ghost myself. It's got a silly title too: "Not in these Trousers." Well, you've asked for it, you know; so here goes.
'Julian Markson was a piano tuner, whose job took him occasionally to out of the way places. He had never been to Angerthorpe before, and was surprised to find the Three Badgers Inn a good deal more comfortable than its size and remoteness would have led a visitor to expect. Food and service were excellent and charges moderate. He was sorry to be staying only one night; but he had two pianos to tune at Wallingstoke Hall next day. Wallingstoke was three stations further down the line towards Ladderbridge, where he had booked a room in the Commercial Hotel and had several pianos to attend to.
As he undressed that evening, Mr Markson looked approvingly at the new suit which he was wearing for the first time. Nobody, he said to himself, would take it for a reach-me-down picked up at a cheap sale; it fitted him to a nicety. Finding no coat-hangers in the cupboard, and only one towel, the size of a dinner napkin, on the towel-horse, he carefully arranged his suit on the latter; the trousers underneath, and the coat and waistcoat on top. Then, having brushed his teeth and said a prayer (thus reversing the proverbial precedence of godliness and cleanliness), he got into bed, blew out the candle and was soon asleep. Waking later in the small hours he noticed that a shaft of moonlight had fallen aslant the towel-horse. Even in this light, he thought, the trousers looked well tailored and desirable. But what, he suddenly asked himself, had happened to the coat and waistcoat? The answer lay in a heap on the floor—oddly, because he had taken particular trouble over their disposition on the towel-horse. There was no wind or even draught, and he hoped that it wasn't rats. It must be, though, for there was now a slight movement in the trousers; a sort of twitching, as though they were being gradually inflated. Then to his surprise they jauntily vaulted off the towel-horse, stood erect for a moment, and then moved stealthily towards the door; which, he observed, had somehow come ajar.
'Reconstructing this scene from subsequent memory Markson used to say that his first feeling of intense uneasiness, almost of fear, suddenly gave way to a sharp realisation that they were the only trousers he had with him; and that, if they eloped, he would be a semi-nudist. He leaped therefore from his bed, caught them by the scruff of the seat as they were passing through the chink, hastily pressed them into a drawer and turned the key. In doing this he had felt nothing tangible inside them to account for their locomotion. Before getting back into bed he locked into two other drawers his coat, waistcoat, underwear, socks and shoes, in case they too should turn migratory. After that he tried to get to sleep again, but found it difficult because of an intermittent rustling noise from the chest of drawers. This at last seemed to cease with the faint flush of dawn, and he then enjoyed an hour or more of dreamless repose; for he was an enviably incurious and unimaginative man.
'There appeared nothing abnormal about his clothes when he came to dress. After shaving he sat down to breakfast and read the Daily Scene. Before the meal was finished, however, he had an uncomfortable feeling that his trousers were being shared. "I felt," he used to say afterwards, "as though a lump of frogspawn had somehow got between them and my shirt." Still, there was nothing that he could very well do but put up with it.
'A further annoyance awaited him at the railway station. He was standing on the down platform when a porter remarked that the train had been delayed by fog up Pratford way. Even here at Angerthorpe one could hardly see the home signal. There was not a breath of wind; but, for all that, his trouser-legs kept fluttering out and in against his calves and shin bones. A mongrel dog began to bark at this from a few yards distance, and, to disengage himself from its attention, Markson took refuge in the general waiting-room. When at last the train arrived, and he was in the act of boarding it, a handful of coppers was whisked out of a trousers pocket, and fell tinkling between platform and footboard on to the permanent way below. "Lucky they were only coppers," Markson murmured. "This must be a poltergeist." He had never believed in such things before; but his suspicion increased while he was tuning the Wallingstoke pianos. His work was rendered difficult by repeated applications of the loud and soft pedals by some agency other than his toe. The thing was getting really tiresome. On arrival at the Ladderbridge Commercial Hotel, as he was putting down his suitcase, the turn-up of his right trouser-leg got inexplicably caught in the tap of a radiator, and nearly had him over.
'It was there, however, in the hotel vestibule, that he saw a possible means of deliverance. The premises were in the course of redecoration. From a peg on the wall opposite the radiator hung a suit of painter's overalls. Before turning in that night he took these down, and slipped them into his suitcase. Having carried it to his room, and unpacked it, he used his braces to make his trousers fast to the bar at the foot of the bed. At their side he placed, unsecured, the suit of overalls. After saying his prayers, perhaps more zealously than the night before, he set the door slightly ajar and turned off the gas. He lay awake, watching, for perhaps an hour. It was an incandescent gas lamp, and the tiny blue flame of its lighting jet enabled him at the end of that time to discern, though very dimly, an appearance of movement at the bed-foot. This was followed by two or three tugs at the bar; which he felt very distinctly. Thank heaven those braces were a strong pair! He next heard a rustling; then a scraping by the door. He lit a match. The overalls had gone!
'That, so far as Markson's personal experience was concerned, was the end. Some weeks later a friend, to whom he had described it, posted him a newspaper cutting, which may or may not be of relevance. It was from the Ladderbridge Weekly Courier.
Nothing appears sacred to the professional clothes thief. The Marquis of Lynchester's bailiff, on unlocking the family vault at Haddlecombe on his annual inspection, was amazed recently to find it the repository of a large amount of stolen apparel; much of which has been since identified at Angerthorpe Police Station by the rightful owners. A peculiarity of this strange find lies in the uniformity of the purloined garments, all of which, but for a pair of overalls, consist of tweed trousers. Haddlecombe Court, the ancestral seat of the Wykevilles, is approached by a mile-long avenue of stalwart oaks on the south side of the main Angerthorpe-Ladderbridge road. It is of Tudor origin with additions in the Italianate style.
'It looks therefore as if Mr Markson's poltergeist may have been well connected.'
'You did perfectly right of course,' said Miss Godwinstowe, 'to reject that story for your College Magazine. It's typical fake-stuff; utterly fake.'
At this Mr Ruthwell cleared his throat ominously and was clearly about to stake a claim for haunted trousers in the field of future scientific investigation, when his wife restrained him with 'Tomorrow, Philip, tomorrow: it's Clara's turn now. Clara, will you begin, dear? We're all so anxious to hear one of your genuine experiences.'
5. Lento ma quasi drammatico
It was the dismal tradition of the Brindlestone bellringers to knell the old year out by tolling each of the eight bells in succession during the quarter of an hour before midnight. This mournful process had begun just as Vernon Ruthwell was finishing the reading of his unworthy tale. The manor house stood less than two hundred yards from the church; so that the clang of each bell-stroke resounded through it in uncomfortable volume. The company awaiting Miss Godwinstowe's story reacted to this punctuating din in different ways. Mr Ruthwell rose and poked the log fire, which appeared to be dying with the old year. His wife at each bell-stroke struck the arm of her chair with a crochet hook, and Vernon did much the same by the inkstand with his pencil. Only Mr Felworth was moved to words. 'That's not the way to ring bells!' he exclaimed. 'The vicar or churchwardens should stop it.'
The light from Vernon's reading-lamp lay in a small circle at its foot; the rest of the room no longer had the glow of the fire. Sitting next to Miss Godwinstowe, Mrs Ruthwell could barely see her friend's face, but just sufficiently to be sure that the eyes were focused on the chair which Vernon had vacated between herself and Mr Felworth. She wished that Clara would begin.
The remorseless tolling went on. The absence of any other sound was becoming intolerable to one whose nerves might have been steady enough under the smile of her 'whisky man', but were not proof against present suspense. Suddenly, almost savagely, she clutched at Miss Godwinstowe's arm and gasped 'For God's sake, Clara, do begin.' At this moment a flicker from a log, protesting against Mr Ruthwell's poker, shed a fleeting gleam on Miss Godwinstowe. She was gazing now, not at the vacant chair, but with a fixed intensity at Mr Felworth. Her response to her friend's appeal was, it seemed, deliberately belated. At least two tolls of a bell thudded on the room before she at last broke silence, in a low slow drawl very different from her accustomed incisive manner.
'This silence,' she droned; 'that bell; this surrounding gloom; those dying embers; you; I; the death of a year; all are part of my story.'
This intelligence was neither of much consolation to Mrs Ruthwell nor much of an antidote to the growing impatience of her other hearers; especially as it was followed by another lapse into only bell-broken silence. They noticed, however, with relief, that the tolling was now that of the eighth and last bell. Perhaps Miss Godwinstowe noticed it too; for, rising to her feet, she dramatically proclaimed in loud but deep and husky tones, 'There is no need to tell my story. It is here. Look at that chair!'
To which chair Miss Godwinstowe commanded their attention is doubtful; but all four fixed their eyes on the empty one, as if expecting someone or something to materialise in its vacuum. She, however, continued to stare unblinkingly at that in which Mr Felworth sat, or rather at the sitter himself.
It was on a party posed in these unusual attitudes that the bright light from the ceiling lamps fell when Vernon switched them on, on hearing the midnight chime. They remained thus, like some tableau vivant, while listening to the church clock boom twelve. Then, when the full peal fell jangling on the night, the spell was broken and Mr Felworth rose to take his leave.
'Well, I'm afraid I must be going now. Thank you so much, Mrs Ruthwell, for asking me round. Good night, and a happy new year to you all.'
As the door closed on him Miss Godwinstowe heaved a sigh. 'Poor man, poor man,' she said, 'I felt, I knew, that he saw what he will never, never, forget!'
'Oh Clara dear,' half-sobbed Mrs Ruthwell, 'how wonderful you are. What can it be that he has seen?'
'If there had been anything visible,' Mr Ruthwell objected, 'we would have seen it too. We possess eyes, I believe. Our visitor appeared perfectly composed when he left us; rather sleepy in fact. Where has our nephew gone to?'
Vernon, who had seen Mr Felworth off from the front door, had gone to fetch something from his bedroom and now reappeared as if in answer to his uncle's question. Switching off the lights once more as he entered the room, he groped his way to his empty chair in the circle and from there to the desk where his notes lay beneath the reading-lamp.
'I was saying,' Miss Godwinstowe addressed him, 'that Mr Felworth saw something tonight that he will never, never forget.'
Miss Godwinstowe's reply was delivered in her eeriest tone. 'There,' she droned. 'There in that chair—the one that you passed by just now. I have a feeling that something is hanging over it still!'
'I believe that Miss Godwinstowe speaks truly,' Vernon said with imitation of her Sibyllic manner. 'I have just brought my electric torch down and will flash it across the affected area. Maybe that she will see there what she will never, never forget.'
The next moment she did see; nor will she ever forget. Something did hang over the chair. A pair of trousers.
Eustace Amberlake inherited money at an early age. Not a large fortune, but seven or eight hundred a year spelled independence and comfort for a young man of studious habit and inexpensive pursuits. The legacy was from a bachelor uncle who, impressed by Eustace's winning a scholarship at Ruggenham, and later at St Peter's, Oxford, hoped that the family name, hitherto undistinguished, might be writ by his nephew on some page of future history. Eustace was still at Oxbridge when his uncle died. He took first-class honours in history, but failed to take the Porthill prize, for which his tutors had backed him as a certain winner. It went to his college friend Terence Terrison. Amberlake was a year senior to 'Terrie, but from the day of their first meeting the two young men were inseparable. On moving out of college they shared lodgings; and, after leaving the university, set up house together in a London suburb. Terrison daily travelled thence to Fleet Street, where a minor post had been found for him on the staff of the Recorder through the influence of a large shareholder, a friend of his father's.
Content with his private means, Amberlake did not look for a job, but chose, as he put it, to round off his education. He attended concerts and lectures, and visited art galleries and exhibitions. At the Acropolis Club he made the acquaintance of a number of interesting people. They found in him a pleasant enough fellow, knowledgeable but unassertive.
At the end of three years Terrison received an increase of salary sufficient to enable him, too, to join a club; so Amberlake put him tip for the Acropolis. The date of his election happened to be also t hat of the publication of his first novel, Cain's Sacrifice. It was well reviewed, and became widely read. Terrison was thus on the march, while his friend continued to mark time. There was no sign in Amberlake of discontent with a life of doing what he fancied when he chose, or of inclination to supplement his income by taking up work. 'A sensible chap,' said his friends. 'Why bother about getting a job if you haven't got to?' There was one thing about him, however, that began to bore. He was for ever talking of Terrie, and bragging about Terrie's success. So different from Terrison himself, who was modesty personified; never mentioning his articles or books, though they were frequently the subject of club discussion. One might almost have supposed that it was Amberlake who had written them! He resented Cliverton's criticism of the plot of Terrison's Red Rage, and, as a consequence of his perpetual harping upon Terrison's literary work, and touchiness if it were criticised, people began to avoid conversation with him. Most of his friends had soon become also Terrison's friends, and they were annoyed by his assumption of the rôle of a Boswell. They wondered indeed at Terrison's ability to continue living with such a monopolistic and proprietary bore. Many suspected that there must be some financial explanation of it. But there they were wrong. Terrison never borrowed from his friend, and scrupulously paid his full share of joint expenses.
The five novels written by Terrison, over as many years, show increasing powers of imagination and description. The style is distinctive, without being affected. The fourth, which has already gone through many editions, may perhaps find a permanent place in English fiction; but nobody can foretell the taste of posterity. After it there came Amberlake, with its laudatory dedication 'To my old friend Eustace'. To everyone's surprise Amberlake appeared far from appreciative of the honour done him. 'Amberlake,' in the book, is the name of a moorland village, and Eustace was heard to complain that a liberty had been taken with, rather than honour paid to, his patronymic.
This complaint was not taken too seriously, for Amberlake at the time was a sick and nervy man. The doctors suspected a duodenal ulcer, or something worse. He had bouts of severe pain, slept badly, and found fault with everyone and everything. Placed on a strict diet, he was eventually ordered to the seaside by his doctor. Funtingham-on-sea was the chosen resort; and thither the faithful Terrison repaired every weekend to be with him.
Then the quite unexpected happened. Amberlake began to recover with remarkable rapidity: Terrison to show signs of ill health. In spite of it, however, he persisted in his weekend visits to Funtingham, even during a January which the newspapers declared the bitterest for twenty years. Travelling back to London at the beginning of February, in an unheated railway carriage, he caught a chill; was in a high fever for five days; developed pneumonia; and died on the following Sunday. He was only thirty-four.
Amberlake, contrary to expectation, was well enough to attend the funeral. Arriving at the cemetery too late for the chapel part of the service, he found himself in the extreme rear of the procession to the grave. The few people who recognised him made way for him to pass, but to the majority he was unknown. Through them he elbowed his way, as though he were in a football crowd; they wondered how he could behave so at a funeral. Having reached the grave-side he attracted further attention, after the closing benediction, by picking up a clod of clay and shying, rather than dropping, it on top of the coffin. This done, he made off without greeting, or apparently recognising, any of his acquaintances. At the Acropolis next day it was agreed that Amberlake's behaviour must have reflected some derangement of mind at his friend's death. Cliverton therefore felt it his duty to visit him and see whether he could be of any assistance. What Amberlake then told him was of so unusual a nature that, at Amberlake's own suggestion, he made notes of it. These notes, which were in dialogue form, are reproduced below with but few omissions.
Amberlake: The first time I set eyes on Terrison was at morning prayers in the college chapel. As a scholar, I sat in one of the stalls; and, happening to glance during the Venite at the stall immediately to my left, I saw him looking at me. He too was a scholar, but a year junior to me. I noticed at once his dark piercing eyes and full red lips. You must have noticed them too, for they never changed.
Cliverton: I can't say that I ever did. His looks struck me as rather ordinary, but quite pleasant.
A.: Ah! then he can never have looked at you like he used to look at me. The moment I saw those eyes fixed on me in chapel that morning I felt as though something were being drawn out of me; sucked out. I very nearly fainted during the psalms. Yet, after chapel, I found myself going up to him, asking his name, and inviting him to come round to my rooms for tea that afternoon. Somehow I felt that he had dragged something out of me that I must get back as soon as possible. I was a fool not to realise that I would be jumping from the frying-pan into the fire! He came to tea, of course; and, sitting opposite me, just sucked, and sucked, and sucked.
C.: Sucked what?'
A.: Me; what else? Sucked me like an orange.
C.: You talk as if he had been a sort of vampire.
A.: Precisely; so you have noticed his lips and eyes, though perhaps subconsciously. I felt sure that you must have. Well, I simply couldn't keep away from him. He drew me to him like a magnet—no, not a magnet, for a magnet doesn't suck—like a leech, or the tentacle of an octopus. Oh! it was horrible, day after day! And yet, somehow, I was fascinated by his attention, and did my utmost to invite it. I liked at first to imagine that he wasn't really getting anything out of me; but my eyes were rudely opened when he carried off the Porthill prize. Never thanked me either; not a word.
C.: Never thanked you for what?
A.: For all that he wrote in the exam. papers. All, that is, except for his beastly name at the top.
C.: You mean to tell me that he cribbed?
A.: No; nothing so honest and above-board as cribbing. There was nothing in my papers worth cribbing; he'd sucked my brains dry before the exam. If they set such and such a question, he used to ask me, what would be the right answer? Well, I would try to tell him; and so, when the exam. came, his brain was full and mine empty.
C.: But why empty? Talking over a subject doesn't empty one's brain of it.
A.: Not if you talk with an ordinary person; but it was a different matter talking with Terrison. After half an hour of his questions I would feel quite limp and sucked out. I just couldn't collect my thoughts, afterwards, about anything he had questioned me on.
C.: Did you ever tell him so?
A.: Good heavens, no! I had too much self-respect. Too much pride, if you will; for I liked having him come to me as the possessor of superior intellect. I wanted him to need me. Moreover, my disappointment at not winning the Porthill didn't last long, and I began to see my position in a new light. Terrison was dependent on me: he was no more than a marionette, or a ventriloquist's dummy. All his movements were my movements; his words my words. Reading his articles and books I began to recognise them as essentially mine. I started therefore to take a pride in my lay figure. I possessed and manipulated him to a degree never attained by parent over child, or teacher over student. In everything he wrote I caught the vivid reflection of something that I had said to him. He was just pen, ink and paper: I was the writer. Pretty good stuff, too, I was turning out through his agency. I loved to hear it discussed and appreciated at the Acropolis. Those first three novels were fine! I had no idea I could be so attractive and interesting. For two years, or more, I was a happy Narcissus.
C.: And then? What are you pausing for?
A.: Because I can hardly bring myself to tell of it. Terrie rebelled. He began not to reflect, but to distort me. It was horrible! It started over a very small matter. You may have noticed my fondness for proverbs: real proverbs, not these slick modern aphorisms and paradoxes. Well, Terrison was writing a fortnightly causerie in the Parnassus, and I told him to take some proverb as a headline, or text, for each instalment. He asked for some specimens, and I gave him half a dozen or so. Imagine then my disgust when I found that he had not cited, but parodied, them.
C.: Parodies of proverbs? How do you mean?
A.: I can remember only two: 'Imitation is the flattest form of sincerity' and 'Invention is the mother of necessities.' Both vulgar: and neither, I should say, original. I told him that they were utterly cheap.
C.: And what did he say to that?
A.: That to hear me talk anybody might suppose that I, not he, had been commissioned to write the articles. I didn't bother to argue the point with him, as I had no reason then to anticipate any further lapse. It came, though, and in a serious connection; for it had to do with religion. I had recently written a letter to the Recorder, about the objectionable practice of setting up images in professedly Anglican churches; and I was expecting an allusion to it in Terrison's Parnassus causerie. Instead of that, I was amazed to read some lines over his name that could only be interpreted as in support of images.
C.: Lines did you say? I didn't know that Terrison ever wrote verse.
A.: He couldn't. You see, I'm no poet. He never wrote anything worth while that wasn't really, if indirectly, mine. I've got the lines here and will read them. Mere doggerel, as you'll see.
Tell me, Madonna robed in blue,
What can these candles mean to you
The shrine sill cluttering,
Winking up at you
From under your statue?
No less acceptable, better or worse
Is litten dip than written verse;
Why make men scandal
Of praying by candle?
Spirit need never be slave to tongue,
Muscle will pray when the bell is swung.
Votive wicks spluttering
Are prayers from the hand
That I well understand.
There! What do you think of that?
C.: A Protestant aesthete's apologia. No Catholic would have written it.
A.: I don't know about that. Silly popish stuff I call it, and said as much to Terrison. I let him have it absolutely straight. All his successful writing, I pointed out, had been really mine; and I rated him very little higher than my fountain pen. I didn't mince words.
C.: And what did he say?
A.: Made a pretence of thinking that I joked. Then, when I assured him that I was very far from it, he said something about his gratitude to me for various suggestions I had made; and that it was a source of inspiration to an author to live with a man of ideas. He proposed to dedicate his next novel to me, and to give it my name; all this in a patronising tone that made me wild. He seemed incapable of understanding that he was a mere tool. I came very near to hitting him; but somehow felt too weak. So that wretched book Amberlake came out; and I realised at once on reading it that the end was come. The vital juice in it had been sucked out of me; but dished up with futilities of his own or of somebody else's. I simply wasn't going to stand for it any further; and, by a stroke of good luck, I was taken seriously ill soon after Amberlake's publication.
C.: How was it good luck?
A.: Why, can't you see? He was for ever sucking at my thoughts and ideas, so I set my mind to dwell on nothing else but my illness; and on the fear of impending death. The result, naturally, was that I recovered and that he died. He sucked the mortality out of me into himself, and so came to his just end.
C.: My dear Amberlake, I don't believe one single word of what you say. I should consult a specialist, if I were you, or you'll end your days in an asylum.
A.: That's just where you're wrong. I shall end my days as a distinguished author. I intend in future to do my writing for myself. Just you wait and see.
Hildebrand Quarley, who reviewed books for the Sunday Recorder, was a member of the Acropolis and did the bulk of his reading in its library. A strict rule of silence obtained there; but on his way up or down the stairs to it he was continually buttonholed by Amberlake. There seemed no eluding him, and neither snub nor remonstrance kept him at bay. The purpose of his attentions was apparently to extract from the reviewer his opinions on a number of points in Terrison's novels. Would a posthumous novel prove a success?
'How can I possibly say?' Quarley exclaimed impatiently. 'It would depend on the novel. Terrison's authorship would undoubtedly predispose people favourably towards it.'
'But suppose it were published over another name?'
'Then it wouldn't be greeted as a posthumous novel by Terrison. It might not find a publisher.'
'Not even if it were by the man who wrote all Terrison?'
'I'm sorry, but I don't understand you; and I've got to catch a train. Good evening.'
The morning after this conversation Amberlake received, from somebody signing as 'Secretary', a letter informing him that Mr Quarley felt it incompatible with his position as a book-reviewer to enter into discussions concerning an author's work during his visits to the Acropolis Club. He would therefore be under the necessity of abstaining from further conversation with a member who, to his surprise and regret, had made repeated attempts to lead him into such discussion. The effect of this letter was to divert Amberlake's conversational gambits towards other members of the Acropolis. They understood him to say that he had found the typescript of an unfinished novel by Terrison; that he himself had been the real writer; and was now finishing it for publication under his own name. It seemed a queer project; but then there was no getting away from the fact that Amberlake had become queer. Nobody now paid much attention to him or his intentions.
Except Cliverton. That talk with Amberlake after Terrison's funeral had left Cliverton thoroughly uncomfortable. Ought he to tell anybody about it? Amberlake's obsession, he argued to himself, could have been of danger or injury only to Terrison. Terrison was dead; the obsession was therefore now harmless. Things could safely be left to run their course without interference by him.
It was in the evening of a day in mid June that Cliverton found himself in the same carriage as Amberlake on the Underground. 'Hullo! Been watching the cricket?' he asked.
'No, just coming back from my gloaming gloat.'
'Yes, I often run up to the cemetery of an evening; to enjoy a look at his grave.'
Cliverton's frown expressed incredulity and disgust.
'Really, Amberlake,' he said, 'you're indulging your morbid fancies too far. Anyhow, there's one thing I'm glad of. You can't really have believed in Terrison as a vampire, if you hang about his grave at sundown.'
'Vampire was your expression, not mine. What has it got to do with cemeteries? Blood-sucking bats, aren't they?'
'I suggest you look up vampire in any encyclopaedia, and you'll see. By Jove, this is my station! So good night; and do, for God's sake, put all this nonsense about Terrison out of your head.'
That was the last that Cliverton ever saw of Amberlake. Two evenings later he was dead of heart failure—at the foot of Terrison's grave.
An inquest was held. Cliverton, having time on his hands that day, attended it. There was only one other deponent besides the doctor. He was an assistant schoolmaster, and had been placing flowers on his mother's grave when he noticed the deceased jabbing, with a wooden stake, at the middle of a recently filled grave. It looked to him like wanton desecration. So, walking up to the deceased (who went on jabbing at the grave with his back to him), he shouted 'Hi! What do you think that you are doing there?' The deceased jerked his head round; glared at him with starting eyes; tottered backwards, and fell prostrate on the grave. Raising him he found the body quite lifeless; so he propped it against a tombstone, and ran to the cemetery caretaker's lodge for assistance. From there they telephoned to the nearest doctor, who was round in less than fifteen minutes. That was all that the assistant master had to say.
Cliverton heard very little of it, for he was looking rather than listening. The witness's personal appearance had startled him. The eyes were dark and piercing, the lips red and full. Yes, and the features bore a distinct resemblance to those of the late Terence Terrison.
Mr Ridley Prandell's success as a barrister is of relevance to this story only to the extent that it enabled him to retire at sixty, and to buy the old mill-house at Boldrington. A childless widower, without near relations, he was considered unwise by his London friends to throw up work so early and bury himself in the country. He knew, however, what he wanted. Boldrington is but a mile or two from the Royal Southshire golf course, and less than five from Smallhaven, where he kept a small yacht on the Daven estuary. The house had a good garden, and there were trout in the mill-stream and pond. The mill barn he converted into a library, music room and workshop. Electric light and central heating were installed. The new home was, in short, a materialisation of his past dreaming.
Prandell soon made friends with the Kerringtons at Boldrington Hall. Sir Dudley, a man of much his own age, was the best shot in the neighbourhood, an authority on the culture of rhododendrons and a regular contributor to the journal of the Southshire Antiquarian Society. Lady Kerrington spent most mornings of her week in parochial good works, and most afternoons on golf. She played against Mr Prandell every Wednesday. After one of these encounters, in July 1913, she gave him a lift back in her car, and persuaded him to stay on at the Hall for an alfresco supper on the terrace. Sir Dudley had been reading and writing there, and by him on a garden seat lay a pile of journals and loose papers. The conversation at supper consequently took a turn towards matters of Southshire history.
'My husband,' Lady Kerrington explained, 'is doing some research into parish records and traditions. Quite a lot appears to have happened in Boldrington, though nobody has ever written about it.'
'Yes, I'm writing a little monograph for the vicar. He wants to place copies for sale in the church, in aid of the belfry repair fund. The pamphlet's going to be longer than I intended, I fear, for I've unearthed so many little items of interest. By the way, Prandell, were your forebears by any chance natives of Boldrington or Knapton?'
'Well, I rather fancy that they did belong to these parts: at least I've heard my father suggest so. Our ancestry isn't at all distinguished, and the family had never bothered about genealogy. That we have risen from the peasantry is certain, because an old fellow who married my grandfather's sister was ostracised by his relations for marrying beneath him. He too, I believe, lived somewhere on this side of the county. Bedsock; no, Ledsock; is that the name of a place?'
'Could his name have been Longbottom?'
'Why yes; however did you know? Yes, of course it was, because the family always spoke of him as old—'
'What a lovely sunset sky!' exclaimed Lady Kerrington, rising from her seat; 'but this drought is getting serious. I must go and water those phloxes. So I'll leave you two to your talk for a few minutes. You can tell me later, Dudley, what it's all about.'
'I have been looking through the church registers,' resumed Sir Dudley as his wife vanished behind the espaliers, 'and the two commonest names in them are Perrandale, Prandell, Prendall or Prandle, and Farribal, Farball, Farble or Fribble. As you know, people took liberties with the spelling of their surnames in time gone by. Well, one of the entries related to the marriage of Susanna Perrandale to John Jeremy Longbottom in 1841, their banns having been read in Boldrington and Ledsock churches. Can you remember your great-aunt's name.'
'Yes, that must have been Aunt Sue all right: and a vixenish old lady she was too, from all accounts. How strange my settling down in the old family haunt without knowing it!'
'Very strange. Your distant cousins here must be legion, for everybody seems connected with either the Perrandales or the Farribals. But never with both. I wonder whether you've yet come across the local superstition about people being touched, as they call it?'
Prandell looked at his host uncomprehendingly.
'No. I can see that you haven't. It's a silly idea to have got abroad and it's all mixed up with an old feud between those two families. No Perrandale has ever married a Farribal or vice versa. They never vote the same way at elections, or at village meetings. My wife is in despair about getting the people to pull together.'
'What reason is there for the feud?'
'Oh! each of the two families seems to have laid the other under a curse. No Perrandale will take the bridle-path to Knapton after nightfall, and no Farribal that footway to the north of the village green. They're frightened of being "touched", they say.'
'Touched by what?'
'Heaven only knows; I'm neither a P. nor an F., and not qualified therefore to find out. Perhaps you'll experience it one day! If you do, don't forget to give me particulars for mention in my monograph.'
'Certainly I will: but I don't believe in that sort of thing.'
'Neither do I, yet one never knows!'
Mr Prandell had come to Boldrington with his mind made up to avoid participation in local affairs, as likely to encroach too much on the leisure of retirement. He was not therefore acquiescent when Stephen Perrandale, proprietor of the Boldrington Stores, called at the mill with a request that he would fill a place on the committee of the Recreation Club.
'Well, Sir, it seems as if you won't, and as Parson will; and he a Farribal on his mother's side. It'll be the first time that we Perrandales take second place at the club. I guess that Sir Dudley may have been mistaken in what he told me and that you're not of our old Perrandale stock. You can walk the path to Knapton without taking hurt, I reckon.'
Mr Prandell looked at him inquisitively.
'We never tell about the touching, not to strangers; but if you be really one of us, Sir, just you take a stroll there one evening and you'll need no telling.'
Mr Prandell, although loath to admit it even to himself, was curious. He had heard often enough of people seeing, hearing or sensing unaccountable things; but never before had he come across any suggestion of a tactual impact of the invisible on the mundane. It was a novel idea to him; and by tea-time, sceptic though he was, he had half made up his mind to submit it to experiment. The July day had been insufferably hot. He had spent the morning and afternoon reading in a deck-chair on the lawn; and a walk in the cool of the evening would afford him needful exercise. Though he had never yet been along the Knapton bridle-path, a full moon would enable him to find his way along it even towards midnight. That was the hour when, according to common report, immaterial agencies were most operative.
Between tea and dinner he wrote letters; and at dinner dipped into a book, as usual, to prevent himself from eating too quickly. He had meant to pick his Pope out of the hall bookshelf; but, on propping the volume against a stand in front of his soup plate, he found that he had taken Poe's Tales by mistake. Never mind; he had not read Poe for a long time, and would refresh his memory of the Fall of the House of Usher. The meal was a light one, suitable to the sultry weather. With dessert he drank a glass of claret, and afterwards lit a cigar. Then, going into the study, he gave an hour and a half to the daily papers and a monthly review.
By now he was not somehow looking forward to his walk with much zest. Pope, he felt, would have been a pleasanter dinner companion than Edgar Allan Poe. However, what he had read, he had read: and he had better be starting off; for the clock said half-past ten, and it was three miles by the road to Knapton and two back by the bridle-path. So he set out.
As he approached Knapton the daylight was failing rapidly. Who was it that wrote 'Layer on layer the night came on'? He couldn't remember. It was a true description though. Ah, yes! Calverley. Moonlight reinforcing the western glow enabled him to read without difficulty the lettering on the finger post, BRIDLE-PATH TO BOLDINGTON. Something appeared to be scribbled beneath in black chalk or pencil; so, putting on his glasses, he went up closer to examine. 'Forbidden to Perrandales after sundown.' That superstition, then, was well enough known in Knapton for some village wit to make joke of it!
He found nothing at all sinister about the path for the first half-mile. A warm scent of meadowsweet floated from the ditches on either side, and at one point he stood still for a few moments listening to a tawny owl. Had Shakespeare been truthful in describing that as 'a merry note'? He was not sure. It was merrier though than this silence in the leafy tunnel through Gravely Wood; so he began to hum and whistle. Here the moonlight, filtering through hazels, made a silver-black tapestry of the mould beneath; but did not illuminate the path sufficiently for him to see the tufts of grass or small bushes that kept scraping his ankles, or catching in the turn-ups of his trousers. Strange, he thought, that a well-trodden track between two villages should be so overgrown.
Further on there seemed to be roots or creepers as well as tufts and bushes. He tripped more than once. Ah! that last one nearly had him over! Well, he was out of the wood now, and traversing the narrow causeway through the Boldring water-meadows. From either side there rose to his ears a syncopated antiphon of frogs; but he was looking rather than listening; looking, intently, at the moonlit surface of the causeway. It was level and almost grassless. Yet he still felt himself trudging through scrub and, here and there, brambles. His ankles were not merely brushed, but pricked. The loud hollow thud of his boots on the bridge over Boldring Brook showed that its planks were as bare as they looked; but in the middle of the bridge his feet caught an unevenness. He saved himself from a fall by grabbing and gripping the handrail.
Some thirty yards beyond the bridge there is a small brick culvert over a backwater. Just before he reached it, his walking-stick seemed to get entangled in some growth and was twisted out of his hand. He heard it splash into the side drain, but rapidly decided not to try to retrieve it in the dark. Over the culvert itself, where the path showed white and smooth in the moonshine, he hurried forward, only to bark his shin against what felt like a fallen branch. Starting aside, he must have misjudged his distance, for he fell knee-deep into the backwater. There was a burst of bubbles and a stench of mud and pondweed as he clambered up the bank. Then, suddenly, all his senses became fixed in one urgent sensation: that of dashing along the path as fast as leg and lung would take him. There had been no decision on his part to run. He just ran, lifting his knees as high as if his way led through heather or bracken. And so to the junction with the main road, where he leaned against the sign-post, gathering breath and wits.
For the remainder of the walk he reasoned with himself. Not very truthfully at first; for he began by taking credit for his good sense in running, after getting his feet wet. By the time, however, that he unlatched his front door he was in a mood to own himself a Perrandale, and to make his confession to Sir Dudley at the Hall next morning. He had been 'touched'.
On arrival at the Hall, Mr Prandell found himself not the only caller. The vicar was there already, engaged in animated conversation with Sir Dudley, when the footman ushered him in. The Reverend Samuel Leslicote needed no introduction to him, for they had exchanged calls and met several times.
'You may remember, Prandell,' Sir Dudley began as they took their seats, 'my mentioning to you a local superstition about members of the Perrandale and Farribal families being liable to what is called "touching". You looked a bit incredulous, I thought, but the vicar here, whose mother was a Farribal, will tell you, as he has just been telling me, that he has been "touched"—and an unpleasant experience too, I gather! Perhaps you, being a lawyer, will want to cross-examine him before accepting his testimony.'
'Unnecessary, Sir Dudley. In point of fact I've just called in to tell you that I myself have been touched.'
'What!' ejaculated the vicar and Sir Dudley in unison.
'Yes, and an unpleasant experience, too, as you have just remarked. Perhaps the vicar and I might exchange and compare notes of what it was like.'
'Yes, please do so,' Sir Dudley requested; 'I shall be a most interested listener.'
Prandell's experience has already been related. The vicar's had been of a more summary sort. He was at a meeting of the Recreation Club committee, when the new schoolmaster brought up a proposal about female membership. Argument ran high, and at a quarter before midnight the debate had to be adjourned until their next meeting. On his way home the vicar heard the church clock strike twelve as he strode along the gravel path on the north side of the village green. Just as he was passing the pink may tree, planted there when they removed the old stocks and whipping-post, he felt a sudden stinging lash across the shoulder blades, followed quickly by another on the buttocks. He did not wait for a third. He had been a sprinter, he said, at school, but never made a spurt equal to that with which he reached the vicarage gate. He was still feeling the smart of the two lashes, and quickly undressed that he might see what mark they had left. There was none. No weal, no redness, nothing at all. By the time he had read his compline, the smarting sensation had gone. That was all; but to his taste more than enough. He felt sorry now that he refused once to listen to what old Obadiah Farble had wanted to tell him. His reason had been that he thought it a parson's duty to turn a deaf ear to idle superstition.
Sir Dudley jotted down a few notes of both narrations.
'What you have both been describing,' he said, 'supports what was told me by Elihu Tampson up at the forge. He got it as a boy from his grandfather. Most of the story is still apparently current here, and in Knapton too, though more than a century and a half old. It happened, Tampson says, "in the year when many innocent people were robbed of their birthdays by Parliament". That of course makes it 1752, when the calendar was reformed and September the 3rd became September the 14th. History books, you will remember, tell us that the alteration led to complaints by the ignorant that they were being cheated out of eleven days of their mortal span. Well, in the summer of that year a quarrel arose about the rights over the Boldring water-meadows. They were unenclosed at that period, and the present channel hadn't yet been dug, the stream wandering about where all those stretches of backwater still lie. The dispute was over pasturage. One evening the Farribals of Knapton Surrey, and the Perrandales of Little Boldring turned their cattle simultaneously into the meadows. The cows got mixed up, ownership was contested, and next day there were all the makings of a free fight. The Perrandales stood on one side of the stream and the Farribals on the other. Stones and sticks began to be thrown; and at this juncture old Ebenezer Farribal, well on in his eighties, hobbled to the scene and urged his men to throw the trespassers out then and there. He was in the middle of his harangue when a great clod of mud and clay, hurled from the Perrandale side, caught him full on the forehead and laid him flat on his back. Being very old, I don't suppose that his heart was too good; anyhow he couldn't rise to his feet. Propped up by his men in a sitting position he proceeded to pronounce what he called his dying curse on the Perrandales. What the curse may have been no one knows. Tampson's grandfather told him that the Bible itself couldn't have said it stronger. It was a dying curse, too; for, although they got the old man on to a hurdle and carried him home, he never uttered again and died that night. The effect of his collapse had been to stay the fight, but feeling naturally ran high between the two sides. The Farribals indeed were not content to leave vengeance to the operation of a curse. Within a few weeks an information was laid against a Perrandale lad that he had stolen fowls. Whether the accusation was true or not, there were Farribal witnesses in plenty to support it; and the boy received twelve lashes at the whipping-post at Boldrington Green. His grandmother lay at that time on her deathbed, and once again dying words took the form of a curse, this time against the Farribals. The feud between the two families has persisted ever since; so too has a belief in the operation of both curses by what they call "touchings". That was what Elihu Tampson told me, and what you two have described this morning seems corroborative.'
'It's got to be stopped,' the vicar exclaimed.
'This rankling of a family feud. I shall do some plain speaking from the pulpit on Sunday; and on Monday, which is August bank holiday, you will both perhaps help me get up village sports on the green and a tea picnic afterwards on the water-meadows. You will? Thank you; that's settled then. I'll get busy with preliminary arrangements straight away. Josiah Farribal and Moses Perrandale will be in church on Sunday and, when they've heard what I'm going to say, they'll get busy too. People will probably think me a bit touched. Well, they'll be right; I have been!'
The vicar's address will be remembered. Its efficacy was attested by Josiah Farribal and Moses Perrandale shaking hands in the vestry after service.
Mr Leslicote began by giving a terse account of his and Mr Prandell's experiences. Whether real or imaginary, he said, they had the practical value of focusing attention on a state of affairs that must be put an end to. A house divided against itself could not stand. Boldrington must cease to be such a house. He therefore urged all his parishioners to meet together on the morrow's holiday at a sports meeting and picnic, which were being arranged. They could dissolve past rancour in present amity. At the beginning of the sports, and again at the picnic, he would ask all present to join in saying the Lord's Prayer. If they did that meaningly it would certainly destroy the potency of any curse that might still hang over place or people as a result of past discord.
Sports and picnic were both greatly enjoyed. Three Sundays later banns were published between Mark Horatio Perrandale, winner of the hundred yards, and Caroline Jane Farribal, second in the egg and spoon race. Immediately after the Amen to the Lord's Prayer at the picnic there had been cries of 'Snike! Snike!' and an adder was scotched at the side of the bridle-path culvert. 'There dies the curse,' everybody said.
There have indeed been no more touchings in Boldrington since; unless a literal meaning be attached to the vicar's remark that whenever he passes the pink may tree he feels gently patted on the back.
'We must give him a name associated with the family; none of your fancy names!'
'Associated with your family, I suppose you mean. What about mine?'
'He can have two names, one from my family and one from yours. What's wrong with Ronald Austin?'
'Nothing, dear; but somehow I'd set my heart on Derek.'
'Derek be damned! He'll be Ronald Austin. He couldn't have had more respectable grandfathers to be named after.'
This conversation was between Mr and Mrs Transome, with the subject of the controversy sleeping in a cot beside them. The subject was not mentioned again until Uncle Charles, chosen to be godfather, counselled the dropping of one of the two names or the addition of a third. This he did not do until the eleventh hour, just before they were to set out for the christening.
'Nonsense!' retorted Mr Transome. 'One name's too few and three's too many. What's the matter with Ronald Austin, Charles?'
'He won't be Ronald Austin only; he'll be Ronald Austin Transome—R.A.T. He'll be nicknamed "Rat", sure as nuts.'
'I don't see why. Does he look like a rat?'
Uncle Charles looked down on the cot, and appeared uncomfortable. He was a truthful man.
Mrs Transome's entry into the room at this moment made it unnecessary for him to reply. 'It's time,' she said, 'we got off to church. The carriage has been waiting at the door for nearly ten minutes. Nanny, you go first and be careful to tuck the shawl well round Baby. Yes; that's right. There's quite a cold wind today.'
Uncle Charles's mind still dwelt on his talk with his brother-in-law, when the clergyman startled him with the command 'Name this child.' Horrified to hear himself mutter 'Rat', he hurriedly tacked on to the monosyllable a paroxysm of coughing before pronouncing a stentorian 'Ronald Austin'. Ronald Austin, therefore, the live part of the little bundle in the vicar's arms duly became. Nevertheless the prelude to Uncle Charles's fit of coughing had been heard by two people. At tea that afternoon the vicar remarked to his wife that he had come perilously near to baptizing a rat, and Nanny regaled the Transomes' domestic staff with a description of Mr Charles's lapsus linguae. Caroline, the cook, and Mrs Vicar were, at different social levels, notorious disseminators of gossip, so that within a fortnight from his christening Master Ronald Austin Transome was known throughout East and West Cattleton as the 'rat baby'. On his emergence from infancy this was changed to 'the little rat boy', and eventually abbreviated to 'the rat'.
Mr Transome did not come to hear of the appellation until his son was nearly four. The gardener had been showing Ronald how to bait a mousetrap; the little fingers got pinched in the process, but Ronald did not cry. He saw how to lift the spring and pulled them out. Mr Transome coming up at this moment heard old Haskins give vent to his admiration with 'Ah! the Rat be a rare young sport, and no mistake!'
'The rat, Haskins? Where is it? Why, that's only a mousetrap.'
'Beg pardon, Sir, for having said as I oughtn't. But we calls our young master 'ere the Rat, sort of affectionate-like; and I didn't mean no 'arm by it, for a rare young sport 'e be. Taking after 'is dad, Sir, I reckon.'
'Ah, well!' said Mr Transome, mollified by such reckoning; 'but Mrs Transome and myself prefer proper names to nicknames, Haskins, and please not to forget it. Rat, indeed!'
Ronald understood less than half of what was being said, but enough to catch its gist. 'Nice people call me "Rat",' he said.
'Very well, Ronald: you can be "Rat" when you and I are alone; but not when your mother's about. Remember that.'
'But why, Daddy?'
'Because she wanted you to be Derek.'
'No, Derek. Now come along, and leave Haskins alone to get on with his work.'
Within a year or two Mrs Transome was also made aware of her boy's debased nomenclature. The vicar, a new one recently inducted, was paying her a call, and the parlour-maid had been sent to fetch Mr Transome from the garden. She found him hiding in the shrubbery; for he had seen the caller, to whom he had already taken a strong dislike, coming up the drive.
'Ronald is a dear little boy, Mrs Transome.'
'I'm so glad you think so, Vicar.'
'He needs your help, you know. Your influence.'
'My help and influence?'
'Yes, your help in acquiring something of great value and importance.'
'Of great value and importance? What can that be, Mr Grimledge?'
'A proper sense of reverence in God's house.'
'Good gracious! Has Ronnie been naughty during the children's service? His governess has told me nothing about it.'
'He made the other boys laugh at Catechism.'
'Laugh? But how?'
'When Miss Pemmity asked him "What is your name, N or M?" he answered, "Neither: it's Rat."'
Mr Transome, having heard this as he entered the room (with, it must be confessed, an uncharitable intention of making himself disagreeable), immediately took his cue.
'You would have Ronald grow up a little liar then?'
'My dear Transome, good afternoon! What can you mean?'
'I mean that his name isn't N or M and that everybody except his mother calls him "Rat".'
'But in church one uses only Christian names. The choir-boys naturally laughed when he said "Rat."'
'Well, Vicar, if you allow boys in your church to laugh at truth, Ronald had better attend services at East Cattleton in future. It's barely a quarter of a mile further from here, and the choir-boys there are better-behaved than yours.'
On the vicar's departure in dignified discomfiture, despite Mrs Transome's attempts at conciliation, there is no need here to enlarge. As soon as the front door was shut on him she dissolved into tears.
'You shouldn't have reproved him so rudely, Herbert,' she sobbed, 'but have left him to me. I shouldn't have spared him the least bit, but I would have been polite. Oh! just fancy him accusing Ronnie of irreverence; Ronnie who always says his prayers so nicely! He's not fit to be a clergyman; horrid man.'
Ronald's sudden irruption into the room at this juncture caused Mrs Transome to smile through her tears.
'Hullo, Ronnie!' she called to him, 'Come along to Mummy, you dear little—Rat!'
The reader will have gathered that Ronnie was not fortunate in his parents: the father self-centred and irascible, the mother shallow and foolish. Happily, however, his character took its first impressions less from them than from an efficient and sensible nurse and, later, from a stalwart governess. From the former he learned to do as, from the latter to understand what, he was told. Miss Ethelstone was not merely a well-qualified teacher, but able, as the saying is, to draw her pupil out. But for her real companionship Ronald's early boyhood would have been lonely. There were few children of his own age in Cattleton, and of them not more than three or four were ever invited to the house, Mr Transome having outlawed the majority on grounds of social inferiority or of his dislike for their parents—a dislike which was widely reciprocated. Frequent conversation and voluntary jobs with old Haskins also helped to educate the Rat. Haskins was no 'scholard', but able to impart a knowledgeable love of countryside and garden which Ronald was never to lose.
About the time of his sixth birthday there was a plague of rats on the farms round Cattleton. Ferret, gun, trap and poison were used against the enemy, and on many barns and gates the tails of the slaughtered were nailed in competitive rows. One day Ronald happened on a small heap of them awaiting such a nailing-up. Picking two up he made a wristlet of them and, back home, showed it to Haskins.
'I shouldn't wear that if I were you, Master Ronald,' the old man objected; Miss Ethelstone won't like it nor your mother either. Rats be'ant exac'ly clean. Nor, I mind me, wouldn't my old grandad have liked it, considerin' 'is stories of girdlings and such like in them old times.'
'Girdling? What's girdling, Haskins?'
'Well, I don't rightly know, Master Ronald; but it was along of them witches what no longer troubles us nowadays. Though, mind ye, I've 'ad my doubts about my Aunt Jemima. She's dead and gone now, though, and I ain't a one to speak ill of them what's buried. Besides, she knit me good socks, did Aunt Jemima, what I wore for more'n three year afore Mrs Haskins chucked 'em into fire. It's for no use, she tole me, tacking one 'ole on to another 'ole; and there ain't nothin' else but 'oles, she says; 'oles and 'oles and 'oles.'
'But what's girdling, Haskins?'
'Ah! girdling. That was what my grandad called it—girdling.'
'Yes, but what was girdling;'
'Well, girdling weren't no more than makin' of a girdle and awearin' of it. Sure, there weren't no 'arm in that. But them witches, grandad says, or some on 'em anyway, wore girdles made of skins got from live animals, 'ares mostly, I believe. Then, come night-time, the witch'd turn same as 'er girdle and go abroad on 'er wickedness as an 'are. It don't sound like sense to me, Master Ronald; but grandad would tell as 'ow when Mrs Flintoff up at the 'all lay dyin' of spotty fever, and 'Annaway 'er butler shot and lamed a 'are as 'e see on 'er lawn, it were old Mrs Rushpen as were seen limpin' about next morning with 'er stocking all bloody; nor wouldn't show 'er leg neither to no one, not even 'er daughter. It were a fact, says grandad, as Mrs Flintoff 'ad given the Rushpens notice to quit for not payin' of their rent; and, as 'er coffin was bein' carried through the churchyard, hout crawls a lame 'are from be'ind a gravestone and makes off along toward their cottage. That, Master Ronald, was what come of Mrs Rushpen's girdling; and that she feared for what she'd done were clean proved by no girdle ever bein' seen on 'er and by 'er never ownin' to one. So just you take off them rat-tails, Master Ronald, or one night you'll find yourself a rat maybe, same as what you're called.'
Ronald did take off the tails; but stuffed them into a pocket and sought out Miss Ethelstone.
'You know that book,' he said to her, 'you used to read to me, about a girl going down a rabbit hole.'
'Alice in Wonderland?'
'Yes, that's the name. Do you suppose Alice had a rabbit-skin girdle, like a witch?'
'Whoever's been talking to you about witches, Ronald? Old Haskins, I expect. Witches are all nonsense, and one shouldn't listen to nonsense.'
'Why not, Miss Ethelstone?'
'Because it's easier to have nonsense put into one's head than to get it out again. No sensible boy or girl believes in witches or familiars.'
'What are familiars?'
'Animals that witches were supposed to exchange bodies with, or to send on errands. Such a stupid idea, isn't it? Fancy a person turning into an animal or an animal into a person! Alice's dream was far more sensible than that, though it was only a dream.'
'Could a rat be a familiar, Miss Ethelstone?'
'Well, Ronald; I know a rat, I think, who's being very familiar; asking his governess a lot of silly questions! Now come along, and let me see you help saddle the pony.'
That evening, after his parents had kissed him good night, Ronald extricated the tails from his coat pocket and wound them round his left wrist. His regular prayers had been said on his knees but, as he lay in bed, he added a special petition. 'Please, God,' he murmured tensely, 'let me dream myself into a rat-hole.'
The prayer was not answered: on that and many succeeding nights he slept a dreamless sleep. On his birthday, however, came more than compensation for this disappointment. On a chair in his schoolroom he found a large wooden box, with foil from biscuit tins tacked on to all sides but one. There there was a grating, made from an old bird-cage, and through it he saw a glimpse of something white. It moved! What could old Haskins have given him? He knelt down quickly to see. A white rat! With twitching fingers he unloosed the little leather-hinged trap-door at the top for a nearer look. Yes: a white rat, a lovely white rat.
'I shall call him Snattajin,' Ronald cried jubilantly.
'Why Snattajin?' asked Miss Ethelstone, eyeing the new importation none too favourably.
''Cause he's as white as Mummy's tonic powder. Look! He's sneezing.'
'It must be from Haskins: it's a home-made box. Very rough work indeed; but strong, though, and not even rats can gnaw through tin foil. But we can't keep it here in the school-room. Rats smell, you know.'
'I'll put him on the shelf in the summer-house,' Ronald replied; 'he'll have a lovely view from there. Nobody ever uses the summerhouse.'
Mr and Mrs Transome raised no objection, so Snattajin was duly installed in the summer-house, before lunch. In the course of a few weeks the lawn began to show a brown streak leading from the garden-door of the house to Snattajin's new abode; it was the track, worn bare of grass, of Ronald's feet hurrying to and from his new pet. That was what his parents and Miss Ethelstone called him—a pet. But, alone with Snattajin in the summer-house, Ronald addressed him by a less trite, more sonorous name, suggestive of deeper intimacy. He had not forgotten Miss Ethelstone's mention of familiars. Well, here was his! With his pocket money he bought a bottle of cheap lavender water at the village shop, with which Snattajin suffered chrism every morning. A heap of superficially gnawed apples, potatoes and other comestibles in a corner of his box showed that his menu exceeded his appetite. He was neither lean nor fat, but just right. So sleek and clean, too. When at evening service in church they sang about saints being clothed in spotless white, Ronald made a mental reservation that they could not be whiter or more unspotted than Snattajin. In short, no present received by a boy of six has ever given greater pleasure and satisfaction than Snattajin brought to Ronald. Whether the pleasure and satisfaction were entirely wholesome is another matter.
The interval between the advent of Snattajin and Ronald's entry into a preparatory school was about two years. During them he made great educational progress under Miss Ethelstone. The headmaster of St. Olave's, Seaborough, wrote in his first report that he wished that all of his new boys had had an equally sound grounding. But Miss Ethelstone was not, after the birth of Ronald's little sister Lettice, any longer resident governess. Her room was required for a nursery; so she went to live in lodgings at East Cattleton, coming after breakfast on weekdays to give Ronald his lessons and returning after tea. This left the boy much time to himself; for a baby is no playmate, and his parents had neither the psychology nor the inclination to join him in games or to interest themselves in his boyish pursuits. 'He's such a dear child.' Mrs Transome would say, 'always happy and occupying himself, and no bother to us at all.'
What Ronald most occupied himself with was Snattajin. Had the latter been a dog, this would have been all right. A dog has personality, shows affection and affords companionship. Not so a rat. What Ronald did was to clothe Snattajin with a whole wardrobe of bogus qualities, all woven from the fabric of his own imagination. He made of him an alter ego to console his loneliness. Nor had he forgotten the association of familiars with witches, but felt that his intimate communion with Snattajin was something for which, if he were to talk of it, he would be either reproved or laughed at. There was also a sermon one Sunday about King Nebuchadnezzar. Ronald listened attentively, for the idea of a king eating grass and letting his nails grow into claws was attractive. He was, the preacher said, certainly like Ann Throppick, and Ronald began wondering who Ann Throppick might have been. The preacher then went on to say that there were two ways of being like Ann Throppick. One was to be mad, which of course you couldn't help. The other was to believe that you could turn yourself into an animal. This for people who wore God's image (Ronald wondered whereabouts it should be worn, and what size it would be) was very wicked indeed. Nevertheless people had believed it in days gone by; people who were (he repeated the were) wolves or witches. Ronald was now all agog to hear something about girdlings, but the clergyman suddenly turned from Ann Throppick to another girl, Ally Goricle, who wasn't half so interesting. Ronald's thoughts therefore turned towards the prospect of his departure for school and consequent separation from Snattajin. Tears dimmed his eyes. It would be a terrible wrench.
So indeed it was. Words are lacking to describe the poignancy of that final parting in the summer-house, with the fly waiting at the front-door. With difficulty he sobbed out an injunction to old Haskins to be careful to look after poor Snattajin. Mr and Mrs Transome saw in his too visible distress evidence of a right and proper filial affection. 'It is nice to feel,' said Mrs Transome, 'that we have made home so lovable to him. I must remember to tell Emily to give his room a thorough clearing out. I do hope that they'll teach him at St. Olave's to be tidier, and to wipe his boots. I doubt if we shall ever get those tar-marks off the stair carpet. Look, Herbert! How sweet of him to throw us a kiss out of the fly window!'
The kiss was thrown towards the summer-house. Miss Ethelstone, who was driving with him to the station, saw this. As he withdrew his hand from the window she patted it. 'Ronnie,' she said, 'I promise you I'll come every Sunday after church to make sure that Snattajin's all right.' Ronald's heart was too full for speech, but he smiled gratitude through his tears.
'And I'll write to you sometimes,' Miss Ethelstone added, 'to tell you how he's getting on.'
The big playroom in the basement of St. Olave's was known for some reason as the boot-room. On either side of it were ranged the wooden play-boxes of some forty boys. One of them was white and new; it bore the initials R.A.T. Inspecting it stood the head of the school, made responsible by the games-master for the orderliness of the boot-room.
'Whose box is this?' he asked.
'You? You're a new boy, aren't you? What's your name?'
'Ronald Transome; but I like to be called "Rat".'
The head-boy looked at him quizzically, perhaps almost appreciatively.
'You'd have been called that anyhow,' he said, 'with R.A.T. on your box; so it's lucky you like it.'
A number of boys were by now standing round, and Glayson (that was the head boy's name) addressed them.
'Hullo! you chaps,' he said, 'what was it Noah said when the ark ran aground?'
'I smell A-ra-RAT,' they yelled in reply.
It was a riddle from the last number of The Olavian.
'Well, come and smell this one, then. His name's Rat, he says; and his box says so, too. Look!'
A dozen boys clustered round Ronald and sniffed him all over.
'He doesn't stink so bad,' was the general verdict. 'Any fodder in that hutch, Rat? If so, open up.'
Yes, there was fodder in it. Five minutes later there was not. The rat, however, had been voted not a bad sort, for a rat. On going to bed that night he found between his sheets a coat-hanger with a large piece of cheese on the hook. Pulling it out he held it aloft, and began nibbling at the cheese. 'Well done, Rat,' said the dormitory captain. 'He knows his stuff all right. Now I'll eat the rest of it, thank you.'
Twice Ronald had done the right thing: done it because he was thinking all the time of Snattajin and what Snattajin would have him do. Snattajin the alter ego, the familiar!
It may be inserted at this point that, whatever his appearance in the cradle, Ronald had grown up not in the least like a rat. He was tall, blue-eyed and fair-haired; well-favoured enough by any aesthetic standard. Good looks undoubtedly added to the good opinion which other boys were forming of him. There was no virtue in liking to be called 'Rat' if you were like a rat; but, if you were quite a decent-looking chap, it was rather sporting, they thought.
The Rat's reputation was finally set on sure foundations when he fell a victim to the exceedingly unpopular 'Maths' master. While doing a sum in long division he chewed and gnawed the butt end of his pencil.
Transome,' Mr Stridwell hissed at him, 'stop gnawing your pencil. You're not a rat, are you?'
Ronald caught a sudden vision of Snattajin. He must be loyal and brave.
There were gasps of surprise and expectation on all sides, for the boys knew their Mr Stridwell.
'Stand up, Transome. You heard what I said. I won't take cheek from you or any other boy. Are you a rat?'
Again Ronald saw Snattajin. He was trembling a little, but managed to steady his voice.
'Well, I've given you your chance, Transome, and you have repeated your impudence. Go down to the boot-room. I shall follow.'
There was a murmur of anticipation. How would the Rat take it? For the master's words had carried a fundamental significance. The boot-room was the place of execution. Mr Stridwell now left his desk to enact it. His class waited in grim expectancy.
Then from the boot-room below came the thwack of a cane, six times repeated. No other sound, though. Many eyes were turned on Ronald as he re-entered the room. He was white and tight-lipped; his hands were clenched. But there were no tears in his eyes.
'If any boy,' Mr Stridwell acidly announced, 'should have a taste for natural history, Transome can tell him where to find a rat with red streaks on its tail.'
Nobody laughed. They thought Stridwell a dirty swine and, after the lesson, the Rat found himself a hero. The games-master was known to detest his mathematical colleague, and several boys took care to let him know about the Rat's caning. As a result Mr Tradger thereafter took a special interest in Ronald, coaching him at the nets and generally befriending him.
Back home for the holidays Ronald found Snattajin in good fettle, except for a few scabs on the tail. Haskins, he learned, had inadvertently banged the door of the box on it after feeding him one day.
'What day?' Ronald asked excitedly.
'Why, Master Ronald,' Haskins replied, 'I don't mind no dates; not for little things like that. But it were the first day of the fair; for that's how I come to be in a hurry and slam the door.'
The cook knew the date of the fair; for it had been that of her cousin Martha's birthday. The same also as that of Ronald's caning! I le and his familiar had suffered simultaneously. Somehow he had expected it. That was why he had asked.
In the course of his second term Ronald was bidden by Mr Tradger to try writing something for The Olavian. 'An ode to a rat', he suggested humorously with reference to Ronald's nickname, 'might liven up the pages.' Mr Tradger did not of course know of Snattajin's existence; but his request chanced to synchronise with Ronald's receipt of a letter from Miss Ethelstone reporting that a cat had tried, unsuccessfully, to get at Snattajin through the bars. From this news Ronald derived inspiration for a retaliatory anti-feline effort. He struggled with it for a fortnight, until Mr Tradger told him that it must be ready without fail for the typist next day. This is how his composition appeared in The Olavian:
Nick was a fine brave rat:
He swore to kill the cat!
Rats do not go to school,
Yet Nick was not a fool.
He watched and waited till
He saw the cat was ill,
So bad was her disease
She could not scratch her fleas.
The day came when Nick saw
She couldn't lift a paw;
So now he crept up close
And bit her on the nose.
He gnawed out both her eyes,
Which caused her some surprise,
Then nibbled through her hide
And chewed the guts inside.
It may be truly said
That cat by now was dead;
Yet not too proud was Nick,
For why? She had been sick.
His fate, if she'd been well,
I do not care to tell.
If Nick is still alive
I hope that he will thrive.
Mr Tradger declared that Transome might one day become poet laureate; but the headmaster, on reading the lines, shook his head. 'Direct and monosyllabic,' he commented, 'and only one false rhyme. But I don't like the psychology. It's not quite boyish—it's ratty.' Next holidays Ronald recited the verses to Snattajin.
The headmaster may have written something about them in Ronald's school report; or possibly it was on his own initiative that Mr Transome informed his son one morning that he was getting too old to waste so much time on a white rat. 'Anyhow,' he went on, 'we can't keep that animal here any longer. Your little sister will be playing in the summer-house as the days get warmer, and she doesn't like rats. Besides, I can't have Haskins spending so much time on feeding it and cleaning out its hutch. It must be got rid of, Ronald, before you go back to school.'
Ronald went as pale as he had after his caning, but knew better than to argue with his father. 'All right; I'll give him away,' he managed to jerk out.
If his parents wouldn't keep his old friend for him, he knew someone who would. That same evening Snattajin was installed in an outhouse behind Miss Ethelstone's lodgings. 'I'll send you two penny stamps out of my pocket money each week,' Ronald told her, 'to pay for his food. I know he'll be happy with you, when I'm gone.'
Like many other schools that year, St. Olave's was smitten by an epidemic of measles. One by one the boys went down with it, and whole dormitories were turned into sick-rooms. Ronald, however, appeared immune; until one morning a letter arrived from Miss Ethelstone to say that Snattajin was off his feed and not looking too well. The same evening after tea Ronald was taken with violent shivers and a bad headache. The matron took his temperature and put a red query mark against his name on the call-over list. He was sent to bed in a small room by himself and, after the doctor's inspection next morning, moved to one of the dormitories being used as hospital wards. The matron altered the red query mark to a red cross.
All Ronald knew at this time was that he was feeling worse than the other chaps appeared to be. He was in fact in a very high fever. He was dimly conscious later, he could not tell how much later, of being moved back into a small room and of having somebody sitting by him in a nurse's uniform. He had a terrible ache in his ears. It was very dark in this dark narrow tunnel but his feet were freezing. Perhaps he had not got them properly into the tunnel yet. He struggled hard to pull them in, but could not do so without worming his body further along. This was difficult because the tunnel grew narrower and narrower; lower too, much lower; more like a rat-hole than a tunnel in fact. Ah! he remembered now; he had prayed for this long ago. But only for a dream-hole, not for a black suffocating reality like this. He was being buried alive; powerless now even to wriggle. Sharp flints were pricking into his ears, it seemed, and into the brain. Something hot began to trickle from his nose; blood, he thought, for he was being crushed and squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. Suddenly the roof of the tunnel came crumbling against his face; he could feel the grit and dust of it against his eyelids. He could not open them. Now it was drifting up his nostrils and down into his throat: he choked violently. As he did so a great wind seemed to blow him further into the hole. In a book on the Indian Mutiny he had seen a picture of men being blown from guns: was this happening to him? There was certainly a horrible roaring: it hurt his ears even worse than the flints. There were voices in it too. 'Go down to the boot-room: I shall follow.' 'We can't keep that animal here any longer.' With a frantic convulsion he managed to cough out the one word 'Snattajin!' At that his eyes must have come open again, for there were vivid streaks of flickering green and purple flame on either side of him; and far away in front, facing him, two glowing red sparks. As he gazed, they grew smaller. They must be moving away; and he must follow, for he had recognised them—Snattajin's eyes! This was easier than he feared, for the tunnel seemed to have grown wider and higher; now he was crawling on his knees and, before long, walking. Mile after mile he walked, with that piercing roar of wind in his ears and his cheeks scorched by the green and purple flames. Mile after mile, with cramp in his legs, gulping for breath. Mile after mile.
But at last the red eyes are stationary. Coming up to them he sees a great white rat crouched upon a green plush cushion. The eyes no longer shine, though: Snattajin must have fallen asleep. He thrusts forward an aching hand to stroke him. Hard, cold and smooth like marble. There is no hair! The eyes have changed again; they are open, but white—white as the body. He is marble; just like that dog at the feet of the recumbent statues in Cattleton church. Ronald tries to draw his hand away; but it too has become marble, frozen on to Snattajin. All of him was turning to marble; cold, stiff but aching, terribly aching. And then, suddenly, the rain began to fall; gentle, warm rain. He felt a clamminess steal over him, and noticed that the green and purple flames had changed into great green and purple cushions. On the green one sat a nurse in uniform, and on the purple one his father. He heard the latter say 'Thank God', and then both cushions and sitters were blotted out by a pitch blackness. It seemed to cover him like a rug, and he knew no more.
One of the first visitors allowed to see Ronald during his convalescence was Miss Ethelstone. She was hoping he would not ask after Snattajin. Nor did he. His first question very much surprised her.
'Where have you buried him?' he asked.
'Under the mulberry tree,' she replied, 'and I've planted some snowdrops over him. He died quite peacefully; of old age, I think. I thought you would like a proper funeral, so I carried him on my best cushion.'
'The green plush one?'
'Yes; I didn't know you'd ever seen it.'
'He looked like white marble, didn't he?'
'Yes, dear; I suppose he did, now I come to think of it.'
Ronald lay still and silent for several minutes. Then he turned to her and said; 'He was my familiar, you know; I should have died too if the rain hadn't come. It did rain, didn't it?'
'Yes, dear; I got quite wet. But how could you know?'
Ronald appeared not to hear. 'Robinson tells me,' he said, 'that I've been given my second eleven colours.'
It is pleasant to be able to close this record with a coda in the major key. The Rat did great credit to St Olave's, winning a scholarship at Winchingham where he ended by being head of the school and captain of cricket. His career at Selham College, Oxbridge, was little less distinguished, though he just missed getting his blue. After considerable success at the Bar he was appointed Chief Justice of a prosperous colony, where he now is. Mr Transome, now an octogenarian, is fond of repeating that 'all this comes of his having been brought up in a thoroughly happy home; no coddling or making too much of him.'
The Chief Justice's interests are wide. He is known to have read a paper before a Colonial Philosophical Society on 'Some survivals of a belief in Lycanthropy'. His white bull-terrier's name is 'Snattajin'. The history of the first Snattajin used to interest his contemporaries at Winchingham and Oxbridge, also many friends of his later life. That is why it is here offered to a wider public. Names (except that of Snattajin himself) have of course been altered or disguised, but the text of the narrative was sent to the Chief Justice's private secretary for any alterations or amendments that His Honour might consider desirable in the interest of truth or accuracy. His Honour made none, but endorsed the manuscript with the one word: 'Ratified'.
Place-names have an interest and fascination not only for the etymologist. This ugly suburb has an attractive, that lovely hamlet an ugly, name. Origins are often forgotten; often, when traceable, found hidden under corruption, abbreviation, mispronunciation or vagaries of spelling. Romance and fancy weave legend round a name, erudition or ingenuity scaffold it with explanations. A dispute over derivation or pronunciation will strike sparks out of the dullest tea-party.
Kongean cartography was a fruitful field for such argument. The Director of Museums, with a profound knowledge of Kongahili, challenged the Surveyor-General on his nomenclature of almost every place on the Colony's ordnance map. They quarrelled indeed over the scene of events here to be recorded, the Surveyor-General mapping it as Elland, and the Director protesting that it should be L Land. It was a question of taste in spelling rather than of derivation; for the origin of the name was never in doubt. When the developmental road was constructed in 1908, old Hartingwell, the resident engineer, had had its milestones graven with Roman numerals. Why, nobody knew; perhaps not even he. If asked about it he would say that the only thing he studied year in and year out was the dial of his watch; so that Roman figures 'came natural'. 'Anyhow,' he would continue, 'what's good enough for a Bible chapter is good enough for a Kongean road.' Prospectors in search of land for rubber-planting, having found the first milestone on the new road marked with an 'L' and the area round and beyond it without any native name, dubbed it the L country or L Land; and the name stuck.
Elland, well watered by the Gangra river and tributary streams, has a good soil. Pioneer planters, with insufficient capital, cleared only narrow strips of flat land on either side of the road; but in 1911 a Takeokuta syndicate (Elland Rubber Estates Limited) bought them out, and developed the whole area in five rectangular blocks of equal size. The road ran dead straight from west to east through the middle of each block, and some three hundred yards to the south of it, wound the Gangra in a steep rocky gorge. The bungalows of the five estate managers lay on its southern bank, each approached by a lane leading off the public road opposite a milestone. The names given by the company to its estates were puns, so to speak, on the Roman numerals of each stone. From west to east they were Elstone (L), Liston (LI), Ellibis (LII—somebody in the head office must have had some Latin!), Elliter (LIII) and Livingstone (LIV). Kongean labourers could of course neither understand nor assimilate such fanciful nomenclature; they talked simply of the fiftieth-mile estate, fifty-first-mile estate, and so on. It was indeed illustrative of the utter featurelessness of the terrain that, for European and Kongean alike, milestones alone could afford differentiation and identification of its component areas. At any spot along that seven miles of dull straight road a wayfarer could determine and describe his location only by its distance from the nearest milestone. Such was the scenic monotony of Elland.
The manager of Liston, Jim Wrightaway, was also general manager of the whole group. He had planted in Kongea for nearly twenty years, and spoke Kongahili like a native. A John Bull of a man, he was prone to express a contempt of the government, especially its labour department, and of the company's visiting agents. All daylight hours he gave to his job, and most evenings to a game of snooker at the Kilkurri club, three miles down the Takeokuta road. The Kongean coolies liked and respected him, feeling his outlook on life to be almost as simple as their own, but his dealings far more straightforward.
Of the divisional managers the two Scots on Livingstone and Elliter found Wrightaway a plain-spoken but affable chief; but, neither being of a social bent, they did not seek or desire terms of intimacy. The other two, considerably junior, managers took opposing views of him. Atterside of Ellibis admired his linguistic proficiency and management of native labour. 'The old man,' he would tell friends from Takeokuta, 'has little education but great practical capacity and common sense. A good sportsman too, and always well met in the club.' To Algernon Craigley, his neighbour on Elstone, Wrightaway was neither more nor less than a 'damned old Philistine'.
Craigley flattered himself on being a man of culture and breeding. Atterside thought him a pedant and a snob. The truth, as often, lay midway. The two young men (neither was much over thirty) had no affinities, Atterside being of an athletic type with mainly outdoor interests and Craigley of a studious disposition, fond, whenever he chanced on a kindred spirit, of bookish talk and argument. Unlike his neighbours Craigley was never to be seen at the Kilkurri club. He preferred, once or twice a week, to ride his motorcycle in the opposite direction and to argue an evening away with Barclay Tinkerwell on Elland End estate.
It is a common fault in anybody of but mediocre attainment in his profession to belittle its experts and grudge them their success. Such was the attitude of Craigley towards Wrightaway; especially when inspection disclosed something wrong on Elstone and he was told to put it right. After one such corrective visit he gave tongue to his resentment.
'As you've found fault with me again, Sir, perhaps you won't object to my reminding you of the visiting agent's order about those Tebanco trees?'
'I need no reminding, thank you, Craigley. So long as I remain here, so do those trees; and I've told you the reason.'
'Because you're afraid of ghosts or devils!'
'Because our labour force is afraid of ghosts or devils. You should know by now how superstitious they are about those mistletoe clumps. I'd sooner bring down a hornet's nest.'
'Well, the sooner all that nonsense is drummed out of them the better. Everyone who comes up here comments on the absurdity of leaving Tebancos standing in the middle of rubber. It makes me feel ashamed.'
'You mean,' said Wrightaway drily, 'that they give you the opportunity of telling them what an old fool you think me. Doubtless they agree; but better the wisdom of a fool than the folly of the wise. Those trees remain.'
For a reader unacquainted with Kongea the preceding conversation will need elucidation. The Tebanco is a large tropical species of ficus, the favourite host of a parasite resembling mistletoe. Viewed from below these parasitic clumps of leafage look like so many giant grey-green sponges; and in them, according to Kongean belief, roosts a sort of ghost or genie; harmless if uninterfered with but dangerously malignant if disturbed. Wrightaway in consequence had left all Tebancos standing when the rest of the jungle was felled and cleared for planting rubber. The visiting agent estimated that some ten acres of the Elland estates had been thus denied economic cultivation; for the Tebanco has extensive surface roots and a wide umbrella of branches. Nevertheless, Wrightaway swept aside his complaint, and defied a subsequent written order from the company's office in Takeokuta that the trees must be felled and uprooted. Of local shareholders many, like Craigley, thought him an obstinate old fool; others, mostly men of his own age, did not.
One morning towards the middle of 1922, Atterside discovered what looked like a leaf disease, oidium he suspected, in a field of ten-year-old rubber. Anxious to find out whether there were any sign of it on estates further along the road he bicycled after tea to enquire of his Scots colleagues on Elliter and Livingstone. Neither had noticed any withering of foliage, but promised to keep their eyes open for it. In order to render his enquiries complete Atterside rode on the further two miles to Elland's End and called on Tinkerwell. His answer also was in the negative; but he seemed eager for conversation and urged Atterside to stay for a drink.
'That's a dirty trick, I think, that Craigley's minded to play on your boss.'
'Trick?' Atterside frowned. 'What trick? He's said nothing to me about it.'
'Oh! Perhaps then I oughtn't to have mentioned it to you, and please don't let him know that I have. All the same I feel that you ought to be put wise, and to stop him if you can.'
Atterside frowned again. 'Craigley,' he said, 'likes me as little as he does Wrightaway. If I told him to stop anything he would take it as the signal to go on. But what's he up to, anyway?'
Tinkerwell poured out two whiskies and soda and handed one to his guest. Then, before resuming his chair, he lit a mosquito smudge and placed it on the floor between them.
'Craigley's a queer card,' he said, 'and he's got a fearful down on Wrightaway about those Tebanco trees. Personally I think Wrightaway right to keep them standing, but Craigley sticks to it that he's actuated solely by personal funk of anything ghostly.'
Wrightaway a funk!' Atterside exploded. 'I'd pity any ghost that got up against him!'
'Yes, I agree. But Craigley's got it into his head that big strong not over-brainy men are generally nervous about spooks; and that Wrightaway's information about mistletoe spirits comes not from his coolies but from Collinson's Kongea, a copy of which Craigley saw on his bookshelf.
'Craigley's a bloody fool,' Atterside exclaimed angrily. 'He doesn't know enough Kongahili to understand a quarter of what a coolie says. They're for ever gassing about devils and ghosts.'
'Exactly what I tried to impress on him. I happen to be rather interested in things psychic and psychological; and I could tell him a thing or two about himself which might surprise him, if only he could understand. But he can't.'
'What are you getting at, Tinkerwell?'
'Well, Craigley's wrong of course about big strong simple-minded men being afraid of spooks. They haven't enough imagination or susceptivity. The vulnerable sort, so to speak, are people like himself; professed and militant rationalists, who subconsciously repress and hide from themselves inherited instincts of apprehensive belief. What Craigley predicates of Wrightaway is a reflection of his own, to him unknown, self. The desire to exploit Wrightaway's supposed superstition comes from the itch of his own subconscious fears.'
'I'm not sure that I follow you. But, tell me, what's the trick that Craigley proposes to play on Wrightaway?'
'Well, he's going to get Wrightaway down the lane to his bungalow next Saturday night.'
'He won't do that,' interrupted Atterside. 'The chief never visits any of us in the evening. Besides, there's a snooker tournament at the club that night, and he won't be home till late.'
'Exactly. That's why Craigley has chosen Saturday. It's always misty on the road after nine o'clock; and he's going to put that hurricane lamp, that he has placed every night under the fiftieth milestone, below the half-mile stone on the Kilkurri side. Wrightaway will then begin to slow down after passing the lamp, and he's pretty sure to turn down the Elstone lane at milestone fifty, mistaking it for fifty-one. In case he should take a glance at the stone Craigley's going to paint an "I" after the "L". It sounds like some silly prep-school plot; but unfortunately it's very likely to succeed. We all know the sameness of that damned road; at night and in a mist it's always difficult to tell which turning is which. Wrightaway's thoughts too will still be on his snooker match; and, if he wins again this year, he will very probably have had a few.'
Atterside's look of annoyance and distaste at what was being told him suddenly changed to a smile.
'He's forgotten Sirono,' he said.
'Yes, Wrightaway's Kongean syce. When Wrightaway drives, Sirono's always behind in the dicky. He knows the feel of every yard of that road, and if Wrightaway takes the Elstone turning he'll shout out at once.'
'You've forgotten, Atterside, haven't you, that Saturday's the Kashtipuja holiday? Sirono will be at the temple.'
'By George, and so he will! Craigley thought of that too, I suppose. But what's his idea in getting Wrightaway down the Elstone lane? As soon as he reached the bridge over the Gangra he'd spot his mistake and turn back; for the Elstone and Liston bridges are quite different.'
'Another drink, I suggest, before I try to answer that!' Tinkerwell replied, and replenished both glasses. 'I put the same question to Craigley myself, and at once he became evasive and mysterious; muttering something about his being a good hand at decorating Christmas trees.'
'What on earth did you make of that?'
'Nothing at the time; but an idea has struck me since, that mayn't be far wrong.'
'Out with it then! Don't keep a man guessing.'
'Well, I feel—no, I'm certain—that Craigley's little game has something to do with his obsession about Wrightaway's being scared of mistletoe spirits. Christmas of course can have nothing to do with it, except that you may remember it was Craigley who rigged up those little electric bulbs on the Kilkurri children's Christmas tree. I've a hunch that he may be going to do something of the same sort on those mistletoe clumps in the Tebancos along the Elstone lane. A lot of little dim lights, switched on all at once, would certainly have an eerie effect on a misty night and startle anybody at the wheel of a car. I haven't a copy of Collinson here, but I believe the book says something about eyes in the mistletoe.'
Atterside took a long pull at his drink and grunted.
'You may have hit on it,' he said, 'though it sounds too damn' silly. Craigley, however, as I said just now, is a bloody fool, for all his brainy talk and swank.'
'Hadn't you better warn Wrightaway?'
'No, I don't want to put him against Craigley more than he already is. Besides, he's away in Takeokuta till Friday afternoon. I don't mind having a straight talk with Craigley, though.'
'No, no! You've promised not to let him know what I've been telling you. He's coming up to pot luck here tomorrow evening, and I shall do my best to put him off any nonsense with Wrightaway.'
Atterside put his empty glass down on the table and rose to go.
'Well, I must be trotting along. Many thanks for telling me about Craigley. I just can't understand the chap, and that's a fact. Yet you and he seem to find something in common. He's always coming up your way.'
'Yes, he's fond of argument, and his talk amuses me. Like me, he's interested in hypnotism and that sort of thing. Not that he knows much about it; precious little in fact. Still, the appeal that I am going to make to him to stop baiting Wrightaway can be wrapped up in palatable jargon.'
'Then I wish you luck. If I should manage to think of anything that I can do to prevent his making an ass of himself, I'll do it of course. Good night!'
Atterside's thoughts were so fixed on what Tinkerwell had told him, and the mist so thick, that he had to dismount twice on the ride home to see what milestone he had reached. He went on thinking as he ate his supper, instead of reading as usual, and afterwards thought on in a deck-chair on the veranda until past midnight. It was his habit from childhood to read a psalm, picked at random, before getting into bed. He did so tonight. It was Psalm xxxv and he reached the eighth verse:
Let a sudden destruction come upon him unawares and his net, that he hath laid privily, catch himself: that he may fall into his own mischief.
Shutting the prayer-book with a snap, he blew out the candle and, a few moments later, murmured aloud in the darkness, 'Thank you, David, for a good tip.'
Next morning for Atterside was one of usual routine, except that, Wrightaway being away at Takeokuta, he sat for an hour in the group office deputising for the general manager on a few matters that need not await his return. Having finished with these he took the opportunity of finding the copy of Collinson and turning up the passage about mistletoe spirits. It was not long.
The parasitic growths, resembling mistletoe, to be found on trees of the ficus family (especially the Tebanco) are the reputed hives of demons called 'nyamika kunya' or eye spirits. These are said to be invisible save for their eyes, which sparkle like moonstones amid the leafage or, if they are angry, like rubies. The clustering of fireflies on the clumps may have given rise to this myth.
That was all, but enough, it appeared, to set Atterside thinking again; for he sat on at the desk four or five minutes longer, staring blankly at the estate chart pinned on the blank wall above. Then, unlocking a drawer, he took from it a large key and walked, still meditatively, out of the office and across the paved yard to a large shed marked GROUP STORE. Unfastening the padlock he entered and took down the Stores Index. Thence he passed to a stock book, and from it to rack J, Shelf 3, Estate Cycle Accessories. Item 23; yes, that was it—Reflectors for Attachment to Rear Mudguard. He took out two and dropped them into his coat pocket, but made no entry in the stock book, for he would replace them tomorrow. Ever since driving his car into young Koseni, the postal messenger, Wrightaway had insisted on all estate cycles and bullock carts bearing reflectors.
By lunch-time Atterside was no longer thoughtful. An onlooker (had there been one) might have detected signs of impatience in his manipulation of some little strands of wire which, having hurried his meal, he began attaching to the two reflectors. This done, he called his boy and told him to fill and trim a hurricane lantern, as he would be going up to the far field after tea and would not be back before dark.
The rest of the afternoon he spent in the factory and on an inspection of a new smoke-house, just completed by a local contractor. The daily paper from Takeokuta arrived at tea-time, but his reading of it was perfunctory, and he was soon pacing restlessly up and down the lawn. He had never felt an evening to be so long.
At last the slow sun set and the cicadas began their crepuscular whirr-whirr; the same noise, he said to himself, as that made by a toy clockwork engine fallen off the rails wheels upwards. The twilight was already dimming fast when he heard the sound for which he had been waiting—the chock-chock of Craigley's motor-cycle bound for Elland's End. In a moment he was back in the bungalow, stuffing two adhesive luggage labels into his pocket-book. Then, with the lantern in his hand and the reflectors in his pocket, he started off on foot through the rubber towards Liston.
It was dark by the time he came out of the rubber on to the Liston lane. Here he turned right towards the Gangra river. Just short of the bridge stood a half-grown Tebanco; and on its lowest branch, not more than four or five feet from the ground, a large clump of mistletoe. In front of this he stopped and lit the lantern. Then with great care and deliberation (for he knew that any pedestrian or cyclist going to or from Liston would take the short cut over a footbridge higher up and that he would not be disturbed) he fastened the reflectors on to the mistletoe, just two inches apart. Stepping back on to the lane he now walked back along it some twenty yards, turned round and let the light of the lantern fall on his work. Two red eyes shone in the mistletoe. They would shine yet more brightly, he told himself, in the beam of a motor-cycle's headlamp. So far, so good.
He strode briskly, even jauntily, along the four hundred yards of lane that lay between river and road. Arrived at the latter he looked anxiously along it in the Kilkurri direction. The mist was only moderate tonight, but he noted to his satisfaction that it was sufficient to obscure Craigley's lamp below the fiftieth milestone. Setting down his own lantern at the base of milestone LI he took the adhesive labels from his pocket-book, licked them, and stuck them over the I. The milestone now read L; nor was the glimmer of the lantern sufficient to reveal the papering. Leaving it there Atterside strolled back to Ellibis and had dinner.
He ate and drank mechanically. The boy wondered at his master's omission to charge him with the usual threatening message to the cook; for the food looked to him more than ordinarily unappetising, as indeed it was. What Atterside was intensely considering was the probable reaction of Craigley to what awaited him. One possibility was that he might not see the reflectors but, finding himself on the wrong bridge, turn his machine round and regain the road.
If so, he would certainly dismount at the milestone to see whose lamp was there (for all the estate lamps bore numbers) and in so doing could hardly fail to see the paper stuck over the I. Such discovery might perhaps have the effect of aborting his design on Wrightaway, but would make future relations between himself and Craigley intolerable. The lantern and papering must, therefore, be removed as soon as they had served the purpose of deflecting Craigley down the Liston lane.
The hour of Craigley's return from Elland's End would probably be late, but no risk must be taken. Atterside therefore set out again from the bungalow at nine o'clock, and on reaching the milestone satisfied himself that the gum-paper still adhered. He then sat down on a low bank in the rubber trees to await and watch events. It was a long and painful vigil. Never had he known mosquitoes so pestilent, or the steamy atmosphere of the rubber so oppressive. He had smoked the last of twenty cigarettes in his case before the distant throb of Craigley's motor-cycle punctuated the hot stillness. As the sound came nearer and nearer, Atterside became seized with a sudden misgiving about the part he was playing. He would give anything for the motor-cycle to flash by without Craigley noticing the decoy lantern. This, however, was not to be. He heard the machine slow down and, a few seconds later, the scrape of rubber tyres against grit and stone as it swung off the road into Liston lane.
What would happen now? The throb of the exhaust was getting fainter, but with no deceleration yet for the Gangra bridge. Then, suddenly, it and all other noises were silenced by a mighty roll of distant thunder. Rain began to fall in sparse but heavy drops.
Atterside ran quickly to the milestone, ripped off the gum-paper with his pocket-knife and, picking up the lantern, turned it down and out. Retreating once more into the rubber he awaited Craigley's return. Minutes passed but he did not come. The claps of thunder were nearer now, the large raindrops more frequent. Craigley must have taken his machine along that path above the river, Atterside concluded; but he would find it bumpy.
There was one thing more that Atterside must do that night. The reflectors must be recovered; or they would be noticed, perhaps stolen, next morning. He walked hurriedly therefore down the Liston lane; but never a sign of Craigley. Yes; he must certainly have taken the river path. By the time Atterside approached the Gangra bridge the storm had burst in full fury; the lightning was so incessant as to render easy unwiring of the reflectors. Putting them in his pocket he made off home as fast as he could; running every now and again, but soaked to the skin long before reaching the bungalow.
Though bodily tired he was long in getting to sleep. His brain felt branded with a huge question mark. How had Craigley taken his medicine? What might he be thinking of at that moment? What form had Tinkerwell's efforts at dissuasion taken? What expression would Craigley's face wear tomorrow? And so on, on and on, until question and imagined answer passed from fevered thought into fitful dreaming. Or perhaps nightmare is the right word; for twice during the small hours he sat suddenly upright in his bed, straining to make sure that it was not really Craigley's face at the window; with red eyes in it.
After muster next morning Atterside bicycled to the group office and replaced the reflectors in store. He had difficulty in resisting a strong temptation to ride on to Elstone and satisfy his curiosity as to the effect of last night's experience on Craigley. His job lay, however, on his own estate, and he must carry on as usual. So back to Ellibis.
On returning from the field at noon he found an estate clerk from Elstone waiting to see him. Had he seen Mr Craigley anywhere about, the man asked. No; why? Because he had been absent from muster and was not to be found at the bungalow.
'Surely his boy must know where he is?' Atterside suggested, feigning an air of casual disinterest.
'The motor-cycle is absenting itself also,' the clerk replied, 'and servant-boy is much wondering only.'
'Well, I heard his motor-cycle pass here just before the storm last night; and that's as much as I can tell you.'
'But servant-boy says,' the clerk continued persistently, 'that master not utilising bed last night. We are all much fearing, Sir.'
'Fearing evil things, Sir. Perhaps motor-cycle running amuck. Servant-boy looks hither and thither for tyre marks, but big rain have made all wash-out.'
'Then you'd better get your Elstone coolies on to a thorough search through the rubber.' Send a man, too, down to the Kilkurri police station to report.'
Atterside felt relieved when Wrightaway arrived back from Takeokuta at tea-time and assumed direction of various search operations. Once, as a small boy, Atterside had set a large stone rolling down a hill in Westshire, and had spent an afternoon of misery for fear that word might come at any minute of someone injured on the farm below. The memory had faded with the years, but returned to him now with an ugly vividness. As then, his plight was one of guilty apprehension. He slept not a wink that night: and again he saw red eyes.
No one, except Atterside, knew that Craigley had taken the Liston lane instead of that to his own estate. That was why Wrightaway and the Kilkurri police had the river dragged only near the Elstone bridge. The discovery of body and motor-cycle in the deep pool below the Liston bridge was due to an estate foreman's having noticed scratches on the moss and lichen of a rock at its side. The pool was jammed with branches and other debris of a recent flood, so that it took long to disentangle and extricate the corpse. A magisterial enquiry (they do not have coroners in Kongea) was held within a few hours, and the cleft and battered skull provided evidence enough of the cause of death. There was no need to summon the doctor from Kilkurri for a post-mortem. Craigley, instead of keeping to the roadway over the bridge, must have swerved into the side-drain where it plunges over a twenty-foot drop into the river gorge. At what point exactly he swerved or skidded nobody could tell, for the storm had washed away all wheel-marks. Death must have been instantaneous.
Atterside was white as a sheet as he testified to having heard the noise of Craigley's motor-cycle returning from Elland's End. The magistrate asked him no questions, nor did Wrightaway when they conversed after the enquiry.
'Must have taken the wrong turning in the storm,' Wrightaway surmised, 'and then perhaps saw eyes in that Tebanco, I shouldn't wonder.'
Atterside started as if stung. 'Good God! What the hell do you mean?'
'The coolies tell me that there's a big devil in the mistletoe there, and they know about such things.'
'But you don't mean to say that you believe all their nonsense?'
'I don't know about believing; but I take stock of all I see or am told. Maybe it's nothing but fireflies or glow-worms, but from all accounts what look like eyes are seen there. One night I fancied I saw something of the kind myself. If Craigley saw 'em he'd have had a nasty shock, for I shouldn't care myself to see anything I disbelieved in. Wouldn't seem natural, would it? But nothing's frightening to an open mind.'
Atterside heaved a sigh of relief. He was not suspected.
Tinkerwell called in at Ellibis that evening and conversation turned inevitably to the recent tragedy.
'I fear,' Tinkerwell said, 'that I may have been an unintentional murderer.'
'Craigley's. He and I had been trying some experiments in hypnotism that night; and, before putting him out of a final trance, I thought of that dirty trick he wanted to play on Wrightaway and laid him under a post-hypnotic suggestion. "When you come to the Tebancos on your way home," I said to him, "you will see eyes in the mistletoe clumps; glaring red eyes."'
Atterside sat staring at the speaker, then at something beyond. The skin of his face was taut and grey. Suddenly he leaned forward and clutched Tinkerwell's arm.
'Look, Tinkerwell!' he gasped. 'Look behind you. Isn't that a face at the window?'
Who does not find it exhilarating to stand on a height and look down? For the Alpinist there is a measure of achievement in the pleasure; but the humble carefree hiker enjoys equally the sense of dominant aloofness that comes of viewing plain or valley from the hills. Such rapture is not for travellers by aeroplane: caged in a cabin, windowed but noisy. For the gliderman, yes; but for moments only. He may not relax control of his craft so long as to lose all sense in gaze. The unencumbered stroller alone can stand, out of time, yet robed with space, in silent impersonal unity with earth and sky.
There is, in Southshire, a place where the chalk downs protrude a northern knee of greensand on to the clayey levels of the weald. In spring there are waves of bluebell on its slope, foam-flaked with wood anemones. Here and there, too, are golden drifts of wild daffodil. Then, as summer comes, all is sunk in a green surge of bracken, turning with autumn to russet and ochre. It was summer now as Frank Lynton stood at the top, gazing abstractedly at the chessboard of field and copse below. He had stayed motionless for perhaps fifteen minutes, but could not have told you whether it had been a matter of seconds or a full hour. 'I like,' he said to his host, the Rev Vernon Vinetree, at dinner that night, 'occasionally to let the brain merely tick over so that my mind becomes absorptive, like blotting-paper.' The phrasing was neither clear nor happy; but the rector appeared to understand. It was he who had suggested that Frank should take that particular walk.
A clatter of twigs and the whirr of a cock pheasant rising from a clump of brambles woke Lynton from his reverie. Leaning forward, and pointing with his stick, he began identifying particular features of the panorama. He had studied the map which hung in the Rectory hall before he started. The building half-hidden by elms in the left middle distance must be Affrington Court and the dumpy little spire beyond it that of Westingly Church. And that group of buildings on the edge of the big wood clearly belonged to Eastover Farm. Save for these there was little evidence of human habitation. Wait a bit, though: what was that line of brown and grey against the oaks on the right? A stationary train? But surely the line ran down the Daven valley, not there? Lynton took out his field-glasses. Yes, they were certainly railway carriages; old ones used for fowl-houses, he surmised.
Replacing the glasses in their case he turned his eyes to the hill's apron of bracken just below him. Here and there the purple spike of a foxglove pierced the green fronds; and over them fluttered a few butterflies, common whites and meadow browns. The warm smell of bracken came floating to his nostrils, although there was no perceptible breeze. Loath to tear himself away from this loveliness he saw nevertheless from a glance at his wrist-watch that it was already four o'clock, and that he must be getting back to tea. It would be a good two miles back to the Rectory. As he took a final look at the view a spiral of grey smoke rose above the middle railway carriage. It was not a fowl-house, then, but a kitchen; and the other two must be bedroom and living-room. He felt bitter that anybody should live so incongruously with his surroundings; there ought, he said to himself, to be some provision of law to prevent it.
There were visitors at the Rectory for tea: one a lawyer from Thornychurch, the other the vicar of a neighbouring parish. They had left their wives shopping together at Thornychurch; for Mr Vinetree was unmarried and, from a feminine standpoint, prosy and unattractive. Lynton, slightly late, heard the trio in animated conversation. It hushed at his approach and during the necessary introductions: 'Mr Lynton—Mr Cowdle; the Reverend Silas Boringer—Mr Lynton.' Then they plunged into it once more, dragging him with them. He worked for a printing and publishing firm, didn't he? Yes: well, he would probably be interested in the problem they were discussing. Cowdle had been about to sum up the whole position just as he arrived, and would do so now.
'Our friend the rector,' Mr Cowdle began, thus invited, 'has for several years past issued monthly, at threepence a copy, a little newssheet entitled Kidbury Parish Notes. It's placed for sale in the Galilee porch of his church, and can also be had at the village grocer's. In addition to church notices and statistics it contains a leading article, and what are headed "Pertinent Paragraphs" from the rector's own pen; also excerpts, selected by him, from current newspapers and reviews. He received therefore a shock when, at a recent Diocesan synod, the Archdeacon called him aside and complained of the unorthodox tone of the Kidbury Parish Magazine. Asked what in particular he found at fault, the Archdeacon pulled out a packet from his cassock pocket and replied "The whole of it". The packet being opened Vinetree saw with mixed surprise and relief that it contained not a copy of his Parish Notes, but a fair-sized magazine, bearing on its cover a picture of Kidbury Church and the title Kidbury Notebook (Quarterly). I haven't read any of the stuff inside it myself, but I'm told that it's not exactly of a sort to harmonise with the church on the cover. Now the question put to me by the rector is as to whether or not legal steps can be taken to prevent further issues of this magazine in a form that renders it mistakable for a parish magazine. He has consulted me as a friend, not as a lawyer (though I am one, Mr Lynton), and I have had no hesitation in replying "No". There is no impediment in law against reproduction on a magazine cover of a photograph of a place of public worship, and the title Kidbury Notebook constitutes no trespass on that of Kidbury Parish Notes. Perhaps, as a member of a printing and publishing firm, Mr Lynton has had experience of this sort of thing and will bear me out?'
'Yes, I agree. Still, if the publishers had been aware of Kidbury Parish Notes they would probably have suggested some other title than Notebook. Scrapbook, for instance. But what beats me is that a little out-of-the-way place like this should support two periodicals; one of them, you say, a fair-sized magazine. The Kidbury people must be great readers!'
Mr Vinetree tapped the tea-tray with his spoon. He had a way of tapping things when upset. On Sundays he would do it with his spectacle case to the reading-desk, whenever the choir sang out of tune. 'I'm happy to say, Frank,' he said, 'that our people do not read the Notebook. I've not come across a copy so far in a single cottage, and I've forbidden it in the village Reading-room.'
'Then where is its circulation? It takes the deuce of a lot of sold copies to make a magazine pay.'
'Ah! that's the annoying thing. It isn't meant to pay. It's financed by a crank named Tresdale, and he uses it for what he impertinently calls spiritual propaganda.'
'Yes. When, after the Archdeacon's mistake, I called to ask Tresdale to alter its title he told me that he couldn't, because it had been decided upon and communicated to him by directive spirits. Everything printed in it, he went on to say, had a spiritual authorship. He himself was no more than a human editorial agent, luckily possessed of enough money to fulfil his vocation. With that he pressed a copy into my hands and remarked that, by command of the spirits, he had some time back posted a copy to the Archdeacon. Every article, he assured me, appeared above the name of an author spirit. I had, however, already had a look through the Archdeacon's copy, and knew that the names were all those of letters in the Greek alphabet. Of this fact Tresdale professed himself to be unaware: falsely, because I have since found out that he took a classical degree. The articles that most shocked the Archdeacon, and indeed myself, were all subscribed UPSILON.'
Mr Cowdle had begun to fidget at the mention of Greek letters. Having no Greek himself he felt that the talk might pass out of his conversational depth. Looking down at his watch, and contriving a little start, he now jumped to his feet with 'Good gracious, Rector! Half-past five and I've an appointment in Thornychurch at six! I must be off at once. Now don't forget that you've no ground whatever for legal action. I say that as a friend, but I've never given better advice for a fee. Mr Lynton's staying with you over the weekend, isn't he? Well, you might let him drop in at my place if he's in Thornychurch; and I'll introduce him to spirits of a decent potable sort that don't write stuff for dud magazines! So long.'
With this parting pleasantry Mr Cowdle hurried down the gravel path to his waiting car. So far the other clergyman, Mr Boringer, had held his peace. Now, however, he broke silence.
'Cowdle's quite right, Vinetree,' he said, 'and between you and me I fancy that the Archdeacon may have been pulling your leg. Nobody who looks it through could possibly mistake Tresdale's quarterly Notebook for a church magazine! It's far too expensively got up for one thing. You say that none of your parishioners read it, so why worry about the thing? I confess to having glanced through a copy in the Thornychurch public library, and I rather enjoyed some semimetrical stuff about an art cycle. That the articles are dictated by spirits I just don't believe. Some of them are not too bad, it seemed to me.'
'There's no accounting for tastes, of course,' the rector said disapprovingly, 'but I can only suppose that the articles signed "Upsilon" escaped your notice. They're thoroughly atheistic and unwholesome. I've been careful to excise them from both copies of the magazine now in my possession. I wouldn't have my servants read them for anything. If they weren't dictated, they were certainly prompted, by an evil spirit.'
'Satan's a clever journalist,' responded Mr Boringer, 'and doesn't confine his contributions to the Kidbury Notebook. His hand is visible enough in many of the daily papers. So don't you go giving Tresdale's publication advertisement by opposing it. Denunciation from the pulpit would make it a best-seller. When I worked in India for the C.M.S. I remember hearing a Tamil proverb to the effect that to prod excrement with a stick is to make it stink the more. Coarse but true. I should leave Tresdale well alone, if I were you. I must be off now, and will drop that parcel for you at Dawkin's cottage; no, no bother at all; I shall be taking the footpath in any case. Goodbye, Vinetree; goodbye, Mr Lynton.'
Left alone with his guest the rector expressed apology and regret that the conversation at tea should have been entirely taken up with discussion about Mr Tresdale's magazine.
'Oh! but I've been most interested,' Lynton replied, 'and am longing to have a look at it.'
'Very well, you shall—after dinner.'
Over soup at dinner his host hoped that Frank had enjoyed his walk to Farnley Edge. 'I often go up there myself,' he said, 'if I want to be alone and to get away from things. So much of this south country has been spoilt by the spilth of an electric train service; but the view from the Edge is still very much what it was when I was a boy, and the wild flowers no fewer.'
'The only pity,' Lynton replied, 'is that some Philistine has gone and stuck three railway carriages in that field by the oaks, and seems to be living in them.'
Mr Vinetree gave his now empty soup-plate a vicious rap with the spoon. 'Yes, even a bungalow would have been better than railway carriages. It's maddening that a fellow with money to spare, and all England to choose from, should elect to live in railway carriages and plunk them down just there, where there's no road, and where he had to dig thirty feet for good water. It must have cost him a pretty penny; and, as you say, he's polluted the landscape.'
'What on earth made him choose such a spot?'
'Nothing on earth, so he says.' Here the rector made another rap with a spoon, this time on the table. 'Spirits!'
'Good heavens! Spirits seem a bit too rampant in these parts. First they engage a fellow to be their editor; and now another chap employs them as house agents!'
'No; not another chap. It's Tresdale again.'
'He must be a lunatic, I guess.'
'You wouldn't say so if you met him. He's quite interesting to talk to. Used to be in the Colonial Service, I believe, till he came in for money and threw his hand in. He's well read, paints in oil, and once had a picture in the Academy. It hangs now in one of the railway carriages. That makes it all the more deplorable that he should be spending all his time and energy on this spirit nonsense.'
'I suppose he's always attending séances and that sort of thing?'
'No, again. The people who call themselves spiritualists will have nothing to do with him or he with them. He has no need for mediums, he says, being clairvoyant and clairaudient. That's the mongrel word he uses, "clairaudient!" So he sits all day in front of a dummy wireless set and a dummy television screen, neither of them connected to anything or with any battery, imagining that he hears or reads the stuff that he jots down for publication in his magazine.'
'But how do you know all this?'
'Well, those railway carriages are just inside the parish boundary, and so I felt it my duty as rector to call on him. He comes to church, too, sometimes; and afterwards sends me on a postcard criticisms allegedly passed by his spirits on my sermons. No, don't laugh, Frank; it's a serious matter, for I'm perfectly certain that they are read at the village post office. Not that I mind my efforts being criticised, if in a proper way; but Tresdale, or his spirits, read impossible thoughts into my simplest utterance. It makes me quite nervous to see him sitting below me, all eyes and ears. So much so that one Sunday I twice misquoted my text! And yet somehow I always feel forced to look at the pew by the second pillar to see whether he's there or not. He never sits anywhere else. Usually he looks as white as a sheet, and the sockets of his eyes as dark as though he were wearing sun-glasses. I know that our doctor, Farrold, is worried about him, for he has told me so. Asked me in fact whether I couldn't do something about it! I only wish that I could. Tresdale would be a decent and useful enough fellow but for his infatuation about spirits.'
'I could never forgive him those railway carriages,' commented Lynton. 'No, no port, thank you: it makes me liverish. Now what about that magazine you promised to show me?'
'Ah, yes! I was forgetting. Come along with me into the study, will you? I keep it in a locked drawer. If you sit in the armchair by the window you won't need a lamp yet awhile. The room faces west.'
They passed accordingly into the study. Finding difficulty with the lock Mr Vinetree discovered that he had inserted a wrong key. 'I've never done that before,' he murmured sarcastically. 'Tresdale's spirits at work again, perhaps! Yes, here's the right one; but the lock needs oiling: it shouldn't squeak like that. Well, here you are. Beautifully got up, you see: and that's an excellent view of the church.'
'Yes; and the magazine's printed on first-rate paper. But what are all those pencil crosses and underlinings?'
'Oh those! They're mine, I'm afraid. I've been checking up on a theory. No author's material, you'll agree, can be entirely of his own creation. It will be derived from history, acquired knowledge, observation of nature, experience of human society, and so on. Like a cook he can choose and mix, but cannot make, his ingredients. Like a cook, too, he will put them into a mould that will give the resultant pudding shape and form. That mould will be his personal style and structural arrangement. Now Tresdale claims to have either read or heard on his dummy apparatus the ipsissima verba of spirits, and to have reproduced them verbatim in his magazine. Nevertheless you will see from my marginal crosses and underlines that a number of identical idiosyncrasies of style and vocabulary recur in all the prose articles. That satisfies me that these cannot have been in any literal sense dictated or visionally communicated. Tresdale has been the cook. I ought to tell you, though, that Tresdale's idiosyncrasies were not observable in the Upsilon articles, which I excised and burned. Those articles, however, were artificial stuff; all of them modelled on the pattern of apocalyptic scripture. Several passages indeed were recognisable reflections of the second book of Esdras.'
'What a queer bird Tresdale must be! I've never thought of dipping into Esdras II.'
'Well, you'd be better employed reading it than this magazine. Still, I would like your opinion on the dozen or so metrical items; they won't take you long to look through. "Art Cycle", which Boringer liked, is the first and longest. They aren't poetry of course, just versification; and a mere versifier has no style of his own, but writes to a set form. So, although these items are dissimilar, I suspect them all to be of Tresdale's own manufacture. Probably you'll agree. Well; now I'll leave you to it. I always work at my bedroom desk before turning in, so will say good night now. Breakfast's at a quarter to nine. Sleep well, Frank, and don't get dreaming of Tresdale's spirits!'
As he sat back in the armchair, Lynton's first look at the Kidbury Notebook was to ascertain the name of its printers. Pyman & Pattercake, Limited. He knew the firm well, as one that throve on the publication of those exquisite brochures with which prosperous corporations celebrate their jubilees and centenaries. 'We are monumental printers,' old Mr Pyman would tell shareholders. 'We cater for boardrooms, not bookstalls.' The magazine now under Lynton's inspection had been turned out as elegantly as their other work, and Tresdale must have been footing a heavy bill for its quarterly production. Could he get any considerable return from its sales? Hardly, Lynton thought, for on the inside of the front cover was printed: 'Obtainable only at the Cloister Bookshop, Thornychurch; Price One shilling and sixpence.' Small wonder that the rector had come across no copy in a cottage: the Cloister Bookshop was not a haunt of the rank and file. And the price too! Hadn't the Archdeacon noticed that?
Yet another notice appeared on the back cover: 'All items in this Number are contributed by Spirits. Direct communication may be had with the authors in the manner described on page 37 of the January issue, a few copies of which are (at the time of going to press) still available at the Cloister Bookshop, Thornychurch, price 2s. a copy.' Lynton smiled at the bait thus set for the curious in such matters; and, first lighting the lamp, for it was getting dark, plunged into the letterpress within.
For an hour and a half he busied himself with a critical examination of the prose contents. Some of the stuff was well, none of it conspicuously ill, composed. He could not discern the significance of some of Mr Vinetree's crosses and underlines, but (though he could not agree that identity of draughtsmanship was positively deducible from internal evidence) he found nothing in the various articles to controvert the probability of their all being of Tresdale's composition, whatever his source of inspiration.
It was a pity, he felt, that the Upsilon items had all been excised, for he found nothing in the residue to account for the rector's grave censure. None of the contents would, it was true, be suitable for a church magazine; but then it didn't look in the least like a church magazine. The Archdeacon could have done no more than look at the cover and at Upsilon's scriptural style. The worst that could be predicated of the prose articles was that they seemed to Lynton complacently futile. Cynicism is spurious if self-satisfied, and the dressing of commonplaces in fancy costume is not originality. The resultant tone, despite the claim of spiritual origin, was spiritless. In bored distaste Lynton now turned to the verses, on which the rector had requested his opinion as to single or multiple authorship.
The eleven pieces fell, so Lynton decided after examination, into three categories: mere versification, perversification (his own term, that) and, in one instance only, sincere writing. A fair example of the first was entitled 'Love's Visit', and ran as follows:
When Love looked in at breakfast
He drame morn's care away;
Her arms flung round his neck fast,
Jane begged the boy to stay:
And oh! the golden time we had
In frolic with the lusty lad.
We danced and sang till luncheon,
And Jane did roses pluck,
Whereof to lay a bunch on
Love's lap to bring him luck:
Then, with pretence to be a scold,
She chid the youth for growing old.
But Love laughed on and chatted
Till it was time for tea;
Jane's sleeve he gaily patted
And bade her brew for three.
The glance she threw him was not kind,
But went unheeded—Love is blind.
He lingered on to dinner
('Twas I besought him stay),
But laughter now was thinner,
His pleasantries less gay:
The talk, too, ran on times of yore
Until Jane voted Love a bore.
Not recking her sour faces,
I urged Love spend the night;
Told Jane to stop grimaces
And use our guest aright.
In vain! When dawn came chill and red
His bed was empty: Love had fled.
As typical of the second category, labelled by Lynton 'perversification', the short piece headed Whitsun Protest' may be quoted:
Who stagger blindly on life's crumbling slope,
And in the gloom for hand or foothold grope,
What good to fling at us the loose unmadefast rope of Hope?
What good to prate of Faith, Reliance,
Trust To us who see the worm, the rot, the rust;
Whom observation teaches that the end of all things must be dust?
Doth charity, prime gift of Heaven's Dove,
Bid each of us with all live hand in glove?
Her score in life's rough game, whate'er the count above, is love. —LAMBDA
Archdeacon and rector would rightly have taken objection to that!
The only piece to fall into the third category, of sincere writing, was 'Art Cycle', for which Mr Boringer had expressed a liking after tea that afternoon. Here it is:
To her hairy lord cried the cave-woman
'What doest now
Pricking with flint thy wooden club-handle?'
Gave answer he:
'I mind the boar that I killed yesterday:
Thus was his head; his body thus;
And thus his legs—
Oh! but I had forgotten his tusks!
His tusks were so.'
'Fool!' frowned the woman, 'Fool!
Thy silly scratches shall not make a hog!
' Generations pass: their great-great-grandchildren
Cluster along the cave wall staring agape
At where a youth in charcoal, chalk and berry-stains
Has limned and daubed a story of the chase.
'See there, a boar!
And here a bear:
A fox, a polecat, and a badger!
Hounds too below.'
'Oh! wonderful,' they cry; 'wonderful!
He has caged all beasts of the forest on our wall!'
Millennia lapse into man-made history.
Great lives are lived;
Great deaths died; great names writ
By dint of music, letters, art, philosophy.
'Mark ye,' proclaims a painter's pupil,
'How the master never copies but creates:
His form robes essence;
Just like God in Genesis
He makes the light and sees that it is good:
And it is so.
The man who sat for yon portrait
Died of a quinsy yesteryear and lies
In an already unremembered grave.
Yet, new begotten of the master's brush,
Regenerate in paint and canvas,
He will live on, just as our master made him,
Through ages to attest the painter's power
E'en by his own anonymous nonentity!'
Noontide now turns to even; ripeness to rot;
Scions of giants grow pygmified
From grovelling under low roofs of convention,
Genuflecting to their idols of the past,
Breathing stale incense, nervous of open air,
Mumbling worn rules and musty shibboleths,
Followers all, spunkless to blaze new trails!
Critics, alas, abet.
'At the Dafton Gallery Mr Richard Doe, R.A.
Shows canvasses finely redolent of—and—.'
(Fill in the gaps with any old master's name;
You need not trouble to assess their affinity.)
What falser oracle?
As though a mill can grind with the water that has passed!
Revolt sets in; not with return to simpleness and truth,
But with much paraphernalia of isms and ologies
Pretentiously paraded by fists and ites;
Who, in their heresy of art for the artist's sake,
Mistake ingenious encipherment for creation
And puzzles for profundity,
Forcing the unled unfed multitude to pursue
Photography in Philistia.
Says Mr X:
'I'm glad we let young Harold study art:
He'll be a genius!
lust you look at this:
"The Boar Hunt".
Yet I can recognise nor boar nor hounds,
Nor anything resembling either,
Though it is possibly suggestive of a hunt breakfast.'
'How clever of him!' Mrs X replies:
But faint across the chasm of the years
Echoes the judgment of the cave-woman,
'Fool!' she frowns, fool!'
Thy silly scratches shall not make a hog!'
Having heard from the rector that Tresdale once had a picture of his hung in the academy, Lynton believed that the foregoing must represent some reflection of his true personality. That was what he would suggest to the rector at breakfast next morning.
It was now eleven o'clock and, tossing Kidbury Notebook on to a table, Lynton turned with relief to the last chapters of a detective novel that he had been reading in the train that morning. So engrossing was the plot that he read on to the end of the book; and, as he closed it, the chimes of midnight broke from the church belfry. Noticing that it was full moon he let himself out of the front door for a stroll down the drive before going to bed. The air was warm and close. Although the moon shone clear overhead, there were winks of sheet lightning from clouds to the eastward. On reaching the drive gate he leaned over it and lit a cigarette. Then, as he threw the dead match on to the road outside, he became aware of some belated traveller stepping briskly along it in his direction. As this figure drew level with the gate it halted; and, with the moonlight now full on its face, stood staring at him. It was speaking, too.
'So, what Upsilon told me an hour ago is true!' The voice was shaky, but clear. 'There is a guest at the Rectory. I see him now at the gate, as Upsilon foretold. The spirits will have read his thoughts, and through him have discovered my interpolations. I wanted so badly to see myself in print! This they will never forgive. What will they do to me?'
At that the voice suddenly broke; and with a catch in his breath the speaker started to run—to run madly, as though he were hunted and a pursuer close at his heels.
Lynton too almost ran, so hurried were his paces back along the drive. At one point he jumped over the black shadow of a tree trunk. A dim light behind the blinds of an upper window showed that his host was still awake; and of this he was glad Climbing the stairs two steps at a time he knocked at the door, and was told to come in. 'Rector,' he said, 'I have just seen, and heard, Tresdale!' With that beginning they talked for more than an hour.
All that has been told so far happened on a Thursday: we now skip to the following Sunday. First, however, an introduction is needed to Mrs Bruckett. If ever the words buxom and bonny adequately described a woman, that woman was Matilda Bruckett. You did not notice the colour of her hair or of her eyes, nor whether she were tall or short; only that she was bonny and buxom. To talk to her was to experience a sense of honesty, gaiety and contentment. 'Tilly' everybody called her, and 'Tilly' she liked to be called. She was, and owned herself with pride to be, a charwoman. In that capacity she would visit Mr Tresdale's railway carriages on three mornings in the week: Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 'I don't 'old with working on what some calls the Sabbath,' she confided to the rector, 'but, there, Mr Tresdale requires it, and I ain't a one to argify with a genelman as knows what he wants and pays accordin'. So that's why I comes to church these days of a hevening' stead of morning. I never could abide that Litany neither; beggin' your pardon, sir, for I knows as it wasn't you as wrote it.'
At the Lion and Unicorn of a Saturday evening Tilly Bruckett would eke out a half-pint of bitter with gossip about her clientèle. 'Mr Tresdale now were that strange,' she was heard to say; 'what with livin' in them railway carriages, and 'is goin's on with sperrits as only 'imself could see and 'ear. Sperrits be better than dogs though, for they doesn't make no mess about a place: which ain't surprisin' seein' as 'ow I don't believe there are no such things, spite of all 'is talk.'
It was a less philosophical Tilly that fidgeted impatiently in the church porch that Sunday, awaiting the termination of Mattins, and ready to pounce on Dr Farrold the moment that he emerged. ''Ooever would want to marry 'is grandmother,' she muttered indignantly with a contemptuous glance at the Table of Kindred and Affinity, 'short of a loony! There; that's the last 'ymn, that be, and I 'ope as old Tasker won't loiter with the bag or the organ'll play twiddledy bits at the end. Ah! That's the Hamen all right, and now they'll be coming out.'
So they did, to the strains of Handel's march from Scipione; and Dr Farrold found himself all of a sudden in the unceremonious clutches of Mrs Brackett.
'Come at once, Sir,' she said, 'and take me with you in the car as far as Gander's Green where we'll 'ave to cross the fields by the footpath. Mr Tresdale's been and taken a fit, and I left 'im lying on the floor as good as dead. Couldn't lift or move im', I couldn't, 'e's that 'eavy. Oh! Come along, Sir, or maybe 'e'll be gone.'
Lynton, coming out of the church door, found his way obstructed by Mrs Bruckett's seizure of the doctor, and to him the latter now turned.
'We haven't met yet,' Dr Farrold said, 'but I saw you in the rectory pew, and I may need assistance if Tresdale has to be got out across the fields. Could you come with me?'
'Why, certainly, of course. I'll just look in at the vestry and tell the rector that I may be late for lunch.'
'Right! I'll drive down to the surgery for a stretcher, and come back here for you in five minutes. The rector may like to come too. And you, Mrs Bruckett, please go at once and find the district nurse. If she's in, you can hire the Lion and Unicorn's car, and bring her down with you to Gander's Green and across to Mr Tresdale's. We may need her help too.'
Mrs Bruckett made off as directed, and Lynton found the rector very ready to accompany him. In a matter of minutes therefore they were driving down Hagland Hollow on their way to Gander's Green. There they alighted, climbed over the stile and hurried afoot over the fields.
On arrival at Tresdale's enclosure Mr Vinetree removed his hat, and, bowing reverently, said 'Peace be to—to these railway carriages.' The doctor, meanwhile, being several yards ahead, pushed eagerly into the middle carriage that had once been a saloon. There, still prostrate on the floor, lay Mr Tresdale, with one outstretched hand resting upon an open notebook. On a low table, and just above his head, stood the dummy wireless set and television screen.
'Take the table and other junk away, will you?' Dr Farrold requested, kicking the notebook to one side. 'I shall need more room here.'
Lynton and the rector were quick to do his bidding, and set the table (with the other articles upon it) on the pavement outside. While the doctor knelt to examine his patient Mr Vinetree took up the notebook and began to read. His reaction to whatever he found written there seemed to Lynton unnecessarily theatrical: reminiscent of that once popular print in which Moses is depicted dashing to pieces on a rock the first edition of the decalogue. Lifting first the wireless case, and then the television screen, above his head with both hands he hurled them on to the brick pavement and smashed them utterly.
'Here, for God's sake stop making such a damned noise!' ejaculated the doctor, unmindful of to whom he spoke; and then, in a lower voice, 'By Jove, though, it seems to have woken him up! Hand me that brandy flask, will you, out of my bag.'
They did not need the stretcher. Tresdale, though dazed and speechless, managed to totter along through the fields, supported on either side by the doctor and Lynton. Mr Vinetree carried the doctor's bag, and the notebook. At the stile they met Mrs Bruckett and the district nurse. The latter was placed in charge of Tresdale in the back of the doctor's car; and, with the rector in the front seat beside him, Dr Farrold drove off to Thornychurch hospital. Lynton was left with Mrs Bruckett to go back and pack up Tresdale's night attire and sponges in a suitcase, to put the place generally in order, and then to lock up the railway carriages.
Dr Farrold had supper after evensong at the Rectory. 'I must thank you both,' he said, 'for your help this morning. It's a queer case, and the hospital people can't make head or tail of it. Mental, they think, rather than physical; but the poor chap is half-starved after living alone there with nobody to cook for him. They're shifting him to that nursing-home at Funtingham tomorrow. By the way, Vinetree, that was a rum text you preached from this evening. My name is Legion, for we are many. Were you by any chance thinking of Tresdale?'
The rector nodded. 'I've thought of nothing else since we got back from Thornychurch. You see, I read what he had written in that notebook. You two had better have a look at it before I burn it, as I certainly shall. Here it is.'
The notes were in pencil and decreased sadly in legibility as they went on. These paragraphs were, however, more or less easily decipherable:
You will die from the toes upward. Tomorrow you will be ankle deep in death. Take off your socks and look at your feet. White! The blood will never...
Your shin and calves are numb: but, kneeling before us, you still feel the boards beneath your knees. For the last time.
You do not care to kneel today. You may lie on your belly and place the notebook on the floor. Take a needle and prick your thighs. They are dying.
It is difficult to write now for your fingers are dead. You broke that glass in your hand because you could not feel it. Take care of that cup of milk at your elbow. Drink it before you upset it, for it is your last.
You no longer hunger or thirst for your stomach is dead. We will respite brain, lung and heart and take only your eyes today. You are blind.
You still write what you hear, though the lines are crooked and your letters misshaped. That is well. We wish our punishment of you to be recorded.
Within an hour you will be deaf. There will thus be no more for you to write, and your arms now die. Your brain will alone survive to take your punishment; until you starve.
'No, Rector,' Dr Farrold emphatically objected, 'you must not burn this book. It may help in the treatment of the case. Thank you: I will take it with me.'
Did Mr Tresdale recover? After eight months' treatment under Professor Hasterton, the eminent psychiatrist, he did. He lives now, and paints all day, at a resort on the East Coast. Several more of his pictures have been hung in the Academy.
A year, almost to the day, after the events here narrated, Frank Lynton was again staying at Kidbury Rectory. He and the rector took a walk together to Farnley Edge, and stood gazing in silence at the steaming weald below. The rector was the first to speak. 'Those wretched railway carriages are still there,' he complained. 'I heard that they, and the field too, had been sold. So I was hoping that they would have been removed by now.'
Lynton continued to gaze; unhearingly, it seemed. Then after a minute or two he remarked, still gazing, 'They wouldn't be seen from here if they were camouflaged green and brown. I can imagine no more delightful spot for a quiet weekend. In point of fact I've bought them and the field myself.'
Note—It is probable that Mr Lynton did the Archdeacon injustice in supposing that 'he could have done no more than look at the cover' of the magazine. It seems more likely indeed that Mr Lynton himself omitted to look through the pages headed 'Children's Corner'; unless, which is possible, the rector had already excised them. Those pages included three sets of verses (each subscribed IOTA), none of which would appear wholesome meat for children. The reader, however, can judge for himself, for here they are:
Go to sleep, little one,
Shades of the night
Huddle around you
Go to sleep, little one,
Till the daylight.
Go to sleep, little one,
Better to dream
Than know who enters
On the moonbeam:
So, to sleep, little one:
Eyes are agleam!
Quick to sleep, little one,
Lest you should see
What until cockcrow
Lurks in yon tree!
Safer, dear wee one, to
Sleep and let be.
The fire burns blue with caves of green,
A Hand amid the coals is seen,
A shrivelled hand with fingers charred:
The three who watch are breathing hard.
Did he who counselled this ordeal
Believe the Thing he spake of real?
How should they know, who breathe so hard
Watching that Hand, those fingers charred.
The fire burns bluer yet, they ween,
As something slips the bars between:
A cinder? No; it has no glow
Nor tinkled as it fell below.
As crab along a tidal edge
It sidles to the fender-ledge:
Each watcher tightly grips his chair,
The very silence screams 'Beware!'
Across the rug it flatly creeps,
Then, arched on five charred fingers, leaps!
Leaps to the rear of them that sit,
They have no longer sight of it.
But sounds they hear—a touch, a scrape:
They loathe but listen, mouths agape,
Cursing beneath held breath the Fate
That loosed this Terror from the grate.
Moments are frozen into years,
But comes no respite to their fears:
A reek of charnel taints the air,
But where the climber? Whose the chair?
At last a sob, a choke, a gasp,
A gurgling as burnt nails unclasp!
Blue sinks the fire, its caves dim green;
Within, once more, a Hand is seen.
A clock beneath the stair strikes one:
The Orders of the Night are done!
Two watchers rise to seek a bed;
The third still sits there silent—dead!
A grey dawn breaks on Fonterill;
White shroud of mist still wraps the hill,
When creaking fleshless shoulders bring
Another load to Kirsney Ring.
Burdened and wayworn up the drive
He limped, belated last guest to arrive,
When frost bit hard and snow lay deep on Hampden Clive.
Midnight had chimed an hour ago:
No gleam from any window lit the snow,
Only a narrow bar of light the door below.
A footman met him at the gate:
'The Master doesn't' old with sitting late,
'E told the other gents, what's staying, not to wait.
This 'ere's your candle, sir. Take care!
There ain't no carpet on the broken stair,
The whole place, if you asks me, badly needs repair.
Your room, sir! Fire don't seem alight;
Can't 'elp it, though; them logs is damp tonight.
I'll call you, sir, at eight: breakfast's at nine.
Good night!' The candles gutter: in the gloom
The guest now has remembrance of a room
In which 'twas said that old Sir Hubert met his doom.
There is no bottle in the bed,
And yet the sheets are warm! An ugly dread
Causes him seize the quilt and with it hide his head.
A bell tolls three. Still, still awake
He dares peep out—to see a curtain shake
And the red bell-cord sway and dangle like a snake.
How hot the sheets! Yet he how cold!
With what caress his body they enfold,
Too cold, too numb to rise and force them loose their hold.
Swathing of Death! The bed a tomb!
Ask not upon what warp or weft or loom
Were woven, by what hand, those living sheets of doom.
'Telling a story' is in nursery parlance a euphemism for speaking untruth. Such use of the phrase is not unwarranted. No tale ever told or written has been wholly true. So much is missed in observation, omitted through forgetfulness, misinterpreted in judgment, misrepresented in verbal expression. History in consequence is never a full reflection, seldom a fair summary, too often a distortion, of events. Distortion is indeed inevitable when a record is handed down, not in writing or in memorised saga, but from mouth to ear, from ear to mouth, over a generation or more.
All this is prefatory to stating that each of the two tales that follow is what is commonly termed a true story. They are not, that is to say, of the narrator's invention, but a reproduction of what has been told him, in varying versions, about unusual occurrences which actually took place: the first in the late eighties or early nineties of last century, the second in the first decade of this.
1. A Phantom Butler
If the reader has found the foregoing introduction stilted and pretentious it will have served to prepare him for the presence of those qualities in the character of Tertius Holyoak Burnstable, British Officer-in-Charge of the small Malay state called Penyabong. To the few pioneer planters in that district, as well as to his colleagues in Government service, he was known as a generous, good-hearted fellow enough, but 'sticky'; confoundedly sticky. He was a tall, well-groomed, finely featured man of forty or so; very well pleased with himself in his rôle of virtual autocrat of a tiny territory recently brought under British protection. Riding, driving a tandem, and shooting were his main outdoor pursuits; billiards and whist his indoor recreations. He read novels, and had once written one. Nobody who stayed at the Residency was allowed to leave without taking with him a presentation copy signed by the author. Such visitors were invariably persons of social distinction or of high official rank; for Burnstable was particular about his invitations, having admonished the central Secretariat that in their postings of public servants 'none but thoroughbreds' should be sent to Penyabong. It's blood,' he would say, 'that Malays and planters respect; not brains.' On one occasion he demanded the recall of a young surveyor on the ground that he had dropped an aitch in the course of official conversation.
Hospitality at the Residency was frequent and lavish. Unlike most Englishmen out East, Burnstable kept a large and choice cellar. His Chinese cook was no rough novice from Hainan, but the ex-chef of a well-known restaurant in Hong Kong. The table servants, however, were all Malays, attired, at their master's expense, in exquisite silk sarongs and bajus. Three of them, local recruits, had been drilled and trained to a fair level of proficiency by an admirable head-boy, or butler, from Penang. This was Ahmad, a Tamil strain in whose ancestry was evidenced by a darker skin than is usual for a Malay and a more nimble intelligence. The latter enabled him to imbue the local staff with a sense of their own inferiority, and to exact from Burnstable wages and pickings much in excess of the current standard. Ahmad in return rendered superlative service, with a cat-like contentment if not dog-like devotion. He was in fact major-domo.
That Lord Lettiswood, noblest of noble acquaintances, should have proposed himself for a weekend visit just when Ahmad was away on a fortnight's holiday in Malacca was most upsetting to Burnstable. There was no postponing the visit, however, for the ship in which his lordship was making a trip to China would not be in Malayan waters for more than five days. Burnstable therefore telegraphed to his Malacca friend Reddington (whose office peon was Ahmad's half-brother) requesting him to bid Ahmad cut short his holiday, and take the remainder of it later. To this telegram came the reply that Ahmad was down with malaria, and his immediate return out of the question. Burnstable swore.
He swore again when, on the very morning of Lord Lettiswood's arrival, the District Surveyor and the Public Works Engineer brought him a letter from the Secretariat requiring them to conduct a surprise survey of the district treasury. Such surveys were a periodically recurring nuisance, tying him to the office while cash and stamps were counted and ledgers inspected. Today he had intended absence from office in order to supervise preparations for the reception of his noble visitor by the Residency staff. Now he must leave them to their own devices.
Then, to cap all, Lord Lettiswood arrived a full hour before he was expected, and while Burnstable was still detained by the treasury inspection. When he at last got home, a few minutes before lunchtime, his guest was drinking a gin swizzle in a deck-chair on the verandah.
'By Jove, Burnstable,' he said, 'your boys know how to mix a drink. The mint makes all the difference. Absinthe, too. I liked the way your old chap stood over the young 'un while he was concocting it. Nothing like training the young idea!'
Burnstable looked surprised. 'I was afraid that you mightn't find my staff quite up to scratch perhaps, because my head-boy is away in Malacca and down with fever. These local lads mean well enough, but they're young and raw.'
'Surely not that old chap? If he's your number two, number one must be a paragon.'
Conversation was interrupted at this point by the gong for tiffin, which was served far more deftly and expeditiously than Burnstable had dared to expect in Ahmad's absence. The real test, however, would come with dinner, to which he had invited six or seven guests to meet the noble visitor.
Afternoon and early evening were spent by host and guest in an expedition to the Ginting Merah waterfall, so that the Residency servants were again spared any fussy interference from their master. Lord Lettiswood was more impressed during their ride by the jungle scenery than by Burnstable's conversation, which was a long-winded reproduction of his last annual administration report. Matters of interest are often made uninteresting.
Despite an entire absence of ladies (the white population of the district being wholly male) the Residency dinner proceeded most decorously. Burnstable had warned Lord Lettiswood that he might find some of the guests rather rough diamonds, but the gentlemen so described found his lordship far less 'sticky' and much more interested in their daily doings than Burnstable had ever been. For the first time they felt at their ease in the Residency; for Lord Lettiswood was a good mixer and drew each of them out. Even dour old Sandy Matheson from Ulu Sibarau waxed conversational.
Burnstable, attributing the success of his party to good wine and a Lucullan menu, and finding that conversation needed no stimulus or reinforcement from himself, was able carefully to watch the waiting and attendance. The staff were certainly doing splendidly, just as if Ahmad were there. This passing thought of his head-boy caused him to turn his eyes towards a corner of the big Chinese blackwood screen behind the sideboard, from which point Ahmad had been wont to direct and supervise his assistants. Ah! so that was why everything was going so well and smoothly: Ahmad was there! He must have recovered quickly from the fever, and caught the afternoon mail gharri from Malacca. He was looking far from well, though, his cheeks wearing that clayey hue which on a brown skin corresponds to pallor. The nose was peaky and the eyes sunken. Burnstable regretted now that he had sent that telegram. Thirty-four miles in a mail gharri on top of a bout of malaria would be too much for any man; and Ahmad had never been robust. He must tell him to go to bed at once. That Ahmad saw him beckon he was sure, for the sunken eyes turned towards him. Ahmad, however, did not move.
The District Surveyor was at this moment explaining to Lord Lettiswood a point of local matriarchal custom; and explaining it wrongly. Burnstable itched to interrupt and contradict, for he considered himself an authority on local custom. He found it impossible, though, to concentrate sufficiently on what was being said or to take his eyes or his thoughts off Ahmad. What could it be that so gripped and distracted him? He felt somehow, as he put this question to himself, that he would rather have it unanswered. This feeling arose from a consciousness of something being not quite right somewhere. For the first time in his life Burnstable was ill at ease at his own table. He hoped that nobody was noticing his stare.
He started violently when a fork or spoon dropped from the sideboard on to the floor at Ahmad's feet. One of the boys stooped and picked it up; but, as he did so, Burnstable noticed something that the boy apparently did not. The spoon had dropped, but not at Ahmad's feet. For Ahmad had no feet! The standing figure ended abruptly at the bottom hem of its sarong. For all its appearance of solidity, it must be floating on air. Then, just as Burnstable muttered to himself something about optical illusions, another boy coming with a dish from the kitchen walked straight through the figure.
Burnstable prided himself on his strong nerve. Subduing with a determined effort both fear and curiosity he plunged into the general conversation: so successfully that his guests on leaving remarked to each other that they had never known sticky old B. in such form. While talking, however, he darted frequent glances at the figure by the screen. It was still there when the company left the dining-room and passed out on to the verandah.
Burnstable knew better than to question his servants about what might arouse suspicions of the Residency being an 'unquiet' house. When, next morning, he complimented the second boy on the waiting at dinner he received the reply that they had all been careful to remember what Ahmad had taught them. So they had seen nothing! Lord Lettiswood, however, before taking his leave handed a ten-dollar note to his host. 'I can't find your old chap about this morning,' he said, 'to give him this tip. So you must do it for me. He's a marvel, isn't he? Such a quiet way of managing your other boys, and never a word audible. I should be careful of him, if I were you; for he doesn't look too fit.'
Ten days later Ahmad returned from Malacca. 'Never before have I taken the fever so badly,' he told Burnstable, 'On the day of your dinner party I was like a madman. I seemed to see you beckon to me and I strained every muscle to get up. My feet, however, felt embedded in the sand where I lay beneath the coconut tree outside my brother's house. I set myself to pull and drag them out; till, suddenly, they snapped off just above the ankle, and my body bobbed up like a bladder that has been held under water. Then there was a rushing of wind, and I seemed blown through the clouds and rain back here to Penyabong, where I found myself attending to Tuan's visitor. At dinner I saw that Sulong and the other servants were doing as I had taught them; so I felt very happy, except for having left my feet behind in Malacca. That was a strange dream, Tuan, was it not? But the fever was hot on me when I dreamed it.'
When Burnstable related what has here been told to the Malay Chief of Penyabong, the old man smiled and nodded. 'Shadows are sometimes thrown to a great distance,' he said.
That the old Fort house was said to be haunted is of importance to the extent that it was such hearsay that once prompted enquiry of a tenant as to whether he had ever seen or heard anything.
'Nothing,' came the reply, 'nor has my wife. All the same there's a queerness about the place that neither of us likes. We shall be glad to get into the hill bungalow when the Joneses go on leave.'
The speaker was Roland Belstrow, Assistant District Officer at Sialang from 1909 to 1911. A promising young Civil Servant, not yet thirty, he had recently married Diana Dowland, whose brother, Philip, was manager of Sialang Rubber Estate.
'What do I mean by queerness? Well, just queerness: there's no other name to it. Ever since we've lived here quite ordinary things seem to go a bit queer, and it makes us feel uncomfortable. For instance, there was that business with my brother-in-law. He had to consult Diana about some point in their father's will, and so—I'll give you his account first—he called in here one afternoon a little before tea-time. Sinnatambi, our Tamil boy, told him that we had gone away for the day up to Kuala Pasir, to do some shopping, and that we shouldn't be back until the seven o'clock train. Philip, however, said that he had just seen us walking up the short-cut from the station, and that we must have caught the four o'clock. Sinnatambi therefore went into the kitchen and prepared tea for the three of us. When (so Sinnatambi told us on our return) he came back ten minutes later with the tea things, he found Philip talking and laughing in a chair on the verandah as though he had company. He was, however, alone and Sinnatambi thought he must be tipsy. There seemed indeed to be no doubt about it when Sinnatambi came to clear away and wash-up; for Philip had drunk from all three cups and eaten from all three plates.
As Sinnatambi was telling us this at dinner-time, Diana and I concluded that it must have been he that had been drunk; and I will tell you why. We had run across Philip that afternoon at the Kuala Pasir club, and he had had tea with us at the Orient Hotel. Nevertheless, that Sinnatambi had not been drinking was soon obvious enough from the steady hand with which he poured out Diana's glass of sherry and my gin pahit. We discussed the matter over our dinner, and put a few questions to Sinnatambi; all of which he answered with composure and coherence. Alternative solutions seemed to be: either somebody had impersonated Philip (which appeared most unlikely), or Sinnatambi had been dreaming.
Both alternatives, however, were knocked on the head by what Philip told us after church next Sunday. He insisted that he had had tea with us on the Fort verandah and, by way of evidence, produced a green pocket-book in which he had noted down what Diana and he had agreed to concerning their father's will. 'But,' said Diana, 'I saw you jot that down while we were sitting in the lounge of the Orient Hotel.' 'What nonsense,' Philip replied; 'I haven't been up to Kuala Pasir since Christmas.'
Well, there it was—and is; Diana's word and mine against that of Philip and Sinnatambi; and no reason why any of us should be lying. That's what I meant by quite ordinary things going queer. As I said just now, we shall be damned glad when the Joneses go, and we get into the hill bungalow.'
The Government House calling-book was of great size and weight: so big and heavy that nobody could walk off with it unnoticed. It was safe, therefore, to leave it unattended during daylight hours, laid open impressively on a shelf in the kiosk below the Flamboyant trees at the main gate.
Punctually every morning at nine o'clock it was deposited there, and as punctually every evening at half-past six removed, by two scarlet-hatted, scarlet-sashed peons. This function they performed with such evident satisfaction to their personal vanity as to make of it almost a ceremony. Indeed the aide-de-camp referred to it in his Routine Orders as 'the Procession of the Book'.
Before the governorship of Sir Oscar Sallerton, an unwritten law prevailed in Takeokuta as to who were, and who were not, to write their names in the book. On the official side Heads of Departments must, their deputies should, and other officers of more than ten years' seniority might, inscribe their signatures. Of unofficials, members of the Legislature must, Town Councillors should, heads of the mercantile houses and persons authorised to sign for them 'per pro' might sign. All others might not. Such traditional limitation served a utilitarian purpose. It meant that every signatory could be invited to a formal luncheon or dinner party twice a year without overcrowding the dining-hall or over-taxing the Governor's culinary staff.
Whether Sir Oscar found himself bored by the thus selected few, or overcome by a democratic conscience towards the thus excluded many, must be a matter for conjecture. All that is known for certain is that, in the third year of a not very popular reign, he instructed his A.D.C. to make it generally known that any loyal citizen was welcome to call at Government House. Every taxpayer, said His Excellency, contributed towards the Governor's entertainment allowance; and was entitled to a quid pro quo. Though he couldn't ask more people to dinner than he was already doing, he proposed to give occasional garden-parties to which every Tom, Dick or Harry could be invited. It was unfortunate, perhaps, that Captain Preen should have repeated the use of this formula at the Takeokuta Club; for it inspired inscription in the calling-book next morning of the pseudonymous entries 'A. Thomas, A. Richard and A. Henry.'
If, as a consequence of Sir Oscar's revolutionary ruling, the calling-book lost significance as an index of people's social standing, it became on the other hand a treasury of Kongean autography. Aspiring minor chiefs wrote their titles in decorative curvilinear Kongahili script, and competitive merchants their business addresses in impeccable copy-book style. Here and there, in purposeful contrast, a resentful patrician would indulge a pride in illegibility; or a self-conscious aesthete eke out his signature with fanciful twirl or flourish. Yet the only eyes to feast on the inscribed pages were those of Mr Ariyasonu, the clerk whose business it was to copy entries from the calling-book into the Government House entertainment register.
These daily postings seldom presented any difficulty. Nevertheless it was a standing instruction that, should doubt or question arise, immediate reference must be made to the private secretary. This was why Ariyasonu felt it his duty to invite Mr Lushmoor's attention to an apparent breach of etiquette on the part of a caller who signed his name as U. Nomi.
'This gentleman,' he explained, 'is signing the book after last three garden-parties, but is never answering invitations. That is surely wrongful, Your Honour; for the capital letters on invitation card say "Reply Soon, Very Pressing".'
Mr Lushmoor smiled. 'So that's your reading of R.S.V.P., is it? Not such a bad one, either! But tell me, Ariyasonu, who is this Mr U. Nomi, who doesn't answer invitations?'
'God alone is knowing, Sir. It is not a Kongean name.'
'Nor a European one either, by the sound of it. You know me! Well, apparently, that's just what we don't. A practical joker, perhaps.'
Mr Ariyasonu looked, and was, pained. The very suggestion of a jocular entry in The Book offended not only his sense of propriety but his feelings of loyalty. Were not the Crown and Royal Cipher deeply embossed in gold upon its red morocco cover? Nay, more; did not its pages enshrine the actual signature of one Royal Highness? Fortunately for his peace of mind he had copied without suspicion the fictitious signatures of A. Thomas, A. Richard and A. Henry, and had since wondered why the three gentlemen did not call again. So far as it is possible for a subordinate to show disapproval of his senior officer without disrespect, Ariyasonu now hinted it in his reply to Mr Lushmoor.
'Your Honour must excuse me,' he said, 'but nobody can dare to write wrongfully in the King's book. If this one or that one has written U. Nomi; then U. Nomi is surely this one or that one's true name. Indubittably.'
Mr Ariyasonu's fondness for long words outreached his knowledge of their pronunciation, and 'indubitably' is here spelt as he pronounced it. Indubitably,' he repeated with emphasis.
'Well, let's hope you may be right, Ariyasonu,' the private secretary replied, anxious to mollify. 'You might perhaps try and find out from the postal people whether they've got anybody named Nomi on their delivery lists. Captain Preen can also enquire of the Police. Of one thing I'm absolutely certain, and that is that, if the fellow has ever attended a garden-party, he's never presented himself for introduction to His Excellency. Fancy having to announce "Mr You Know Me"! Captain Preen and I would certainly have remembered it.'
Enquiry of the Police proved fruitless. The post office was more informative. None of the three garden-party invitations had been delivered! As no address had been given beyond 'U. Nomi, Esq., Takeokuta', and as the addressee was unknown to any postal servant, the envelopes had been placed in the Poste Restante rack, and there they still lay. It could be inferred therefore that the coincidence of garden-party dates with those of Mr Nomi's calls had been purely fortuitous.
Indubitably,' agreed Mr Ariyasonu, relieved that there had been no breach of etiquette in the matter of answering invitations; 'no address was written in the book, and so I myself wrote "Takeokuta" in speculation only on the envelopes. Wherefore they have sat simply in postal waiting-box; but without my fault.'
'Yes, that's all right, Ariyasonu. But there still remains,' Lushmoor added, 'the question as to who wrote that name in the book. It's you who look through the entries every evening; so, if you come across Mr Nomi's name again, let me know at once; or, if I happen to be out, leave a note on my desk. Captain Preen has promised to inform the Police should the entry be repeated.'
At this point, for some two or three months, the matter rested.
It was about eight o'clock of a morning in early June that Toby Lushmoor dismounted at the stable gate and, leaving his horse to the syce, strolled over to the office to see whether the day's mail was light or heavy. A large and varied assortment of envelopes lay on the table; most of them, he saw with relief, of an unofficial sort that would be found to contain answers to invitations for the King's Birthday garden-party. Only a dozen or so bore the printed superscription 'On His Majesty's Service'. Placing these on one side he tossed the remainder into the clerk's tray. As he did so, he remembered that Ariyasonu had yesterday requested the issue of a new calling-book; but, before issuing it, he would see how many pages were left in the old one. Walking therefore to the table whereon it awaited the 'morning procession', he heaved it open, and, glancing at the latest entry, gave a little grunt of surprise. U. Nomi! Why on earth hadn't Ariyasonu told him last night, as he had promised to do? He must put him on the mat after breakfast.
Telling Preen, over their poached eggs, of his discovery and of Ariyasonu's default, Lushmoor added that, on seeing the signature, he had experienced a strange sense of familiarity with the handwriting. Would Preen come and have a look at it? While he was still speaking a peon hurried in with a memorandum form, to which a red 'Immediate Action' label had been pinned. 'To Private Secretary,' it ran, 'from Chief Clerk. Your Honour, there is further autograph of U. Nomi in calling-book also, which is enigma only as book was without said autograph at 7.18 p.m. when I am leaving office. It will behove therefore to investigate. T. ARIYASONU.'
'Well, that's a queer show,' Lushmoor commented, 'for the book's been lying in my office all night. Let's go and have a look at it, if you've finished your coffee.'
Three minutes later they stood before the book; Preen with a puzzled frown as he peered at the signature. 'Impossible!' he muttered.
'Identification of handwriting from only two capital and three small letters. Still, I agree with you that there seems something reminiscent about it. I'll get on to the Police again this morning.' As soon as Preen had gone Lushmoor took another and longer look at the signature. He felt convinced that, when he muttered 'impossible', Preen had noticed what he himself had noticed; and had, like himself, written it off as impossible. What this was, and that it was not impossible, the following pages will make clear.
From this scrutiny and meditation Lushmoor was roused by a deferential cough. 'Your Honour has received my memorandum?' Ariyasonu began interrogatively; and at an affirmative nod, went on: 'It is greatly wrongful that anybody should sign in the night-times; and yet how not so? At seven eighteen I am leaving book here in accustomed location, and last name is Mr and Mrs Darley-Fernchurch. Next, when I come this early morning, I see the writing of U. Nomi. Wherefore it is done in the night-times and in this office also. I am asking myself many times who is culprit. The new peon, Your Honour...'
'Cannot write English,' interrupted Lushmoor, 'and so is out of it.'
'But, Sir, all others are long time tried and trustable; Your Honour will not be suspecting...'
'I suspect nobody, Ariyasonu; the thing's just unaccountable, and I doubt if the Police'll be able to make anything of it. However, I mean to try a bit of sleuth stuff myself. I'm going to have my things moved to the downstairs bedroom across there; and, if in future you will place the book on the desk instead of the side-table, I shall be able to keep an eye on it even when in bed. The doors, you see, are opposite each other and both can be left open so long as I sleep there. Anybody signing the book must have a light to do it by, and I always wake up if there's a light. I shan't expect an early disturbance, though; for this Nomi fellow signs at pretty long intervals.'
Mr Ariyasonu appeared pleased at this plan of action. 'I am much grateful,' he replied, 'that your Honour is believing my word that this writing was done in the night-times: for, if Your Honour not believing, where shall be my proof?'
'In the ink, Ariyasonu, in the ink: you'll never make a detective. The peon must have put some red ink into this black inkpot; for the stuff writes a dull purple. The signature, unlike the other signatures, is a dull purple. Therefore it must have been written here, and the book is only here at night.'
'Ah! Sir, I never noticed that.'
Nor indeed had Lushmoor until a minute or two ago.
Lushmoor was right in his prognosis that weeks would pass without any repetition of the Nomi signature. They were not, however, in other respects uneventful for the inmates of Government House. Dinners and luncheons had to be postponed more than once owing to Lady Sallerton's ill-health. She had been married to the Governor during his last furlough, and was as generally popular in Kongea as he was not. The people contrasted her unaffected gladness to meet them with his standoffishness; her readiness to listen and sympathise with his indifference or cynicism. Over bridge tables at the Takeokuta Club, talk would sometimes dwell on the future prospects of what appeared a union of opposites, and the Colonial Secretary's wife maintain a rather too affirmative silence whenever it was hinted that all was not well between the Governor and his lady. Later, when the wife of a public works department official charged with checking the Government House furniture inventory whispered that Lady Sallerton no longer slept in the same wing as His Excellency, her hearers shook their heads knowingly and smiled grimly at their cards.
The mirror of truth was by no means a permanent fixture in the ladies' bridge-room; but in this case their information was correct. Lady Sallerton had changed her room, and by doctor's order. She was suffering from disturbed nights and, under his cross-examination, had disclosed the fact that her husband not only snored but also chattered in his sleep, sometimes loudly, in a language that she did not understand. It was, she surmised, one of those spoken in Luganda, his first colony, where he had won a name, and consequent early promotion, by averting a threatened revolt among the Sasseni tribesmen.
On hearing this, Dr Thraplow counselled her to sleep out of earshot in future, and so informed Sir Oscar. 'Certainly,' he replied, 'you may move her away as far as you like. It's strange, isn't it, that she never appears to hear what I say when I'm awake!' It was perhaps well that, Dr Thraplow being unmarried, this rejoinder did not find its way to the ladies' bridge-room.
Before very long it became quite clear to members of his staff that Sir Oscar resented his wife's having told the doctor of his talking in his sleep. But for him, Lushmoor and Preen would never have heard of it at all; Lady Sallerton never alluded to it. He, however, talked of her before them as 'my nocturnal eavesdropper', and seemed to delight in making her uncomfortable. A grave deterioration in marital relations was obvious; and Preen and Lushmoor, in their turn, felt uncomfortable. Their efforts to make small talk at meals were laborious but unfruitful; Lady Sallerton would be listless and the Governor snappily ironical. When, therefore, a cablegram arrived imploring her ladyship to sail home to see her mother, who lay dangerously ill, Lushmoor and Preen heaved a sigh of relief. So also did the doctor, unable to arrest her neurasthenia. She left for England in the s.s. Lithuania; and, with her embarkation, passes out of our story. It was rumoured later that she found her mother in excellent fettle, and that the cablegram had been sent on receipt of letters reflecting inclement conjugal weather. But this was only rumour.
The Governor showed no sign of regret at Lady Sallerton's departure, but informed Preen and Lushmoor that they need not bother to talk to him at meals, unless they should have anything official to communicate. They could conserve their conversational powers for parties; which, he sourly added, was what they were paid for. A Trappist discipline thus ensued, unless there was company, and food was digested over books or newspapers.
About a fortnight after Lady Sallerton's departure Lushmoor awoke in the small hours of a moonless night, and lay listening for a repetition of any noise that might have aroused him. He then suddenly realised that it had not been a noise but a light, or rather a reflection of light, in the office opposite. Someone, he saw, must have switched on the lamps at the head of the grand staircase. Jumping out of bed he slipped noiselessly into the office to investigate. Yes, the top staircase lamps were on, and slowly descending the stairs moved a figure in blue-striped pyjamas. Lushmoor crept quickly behind the stationery cupboard, and had hardly done so before the figure entered the office and pressed down the light switch by its door. In the glare of the ceiling light he watched the Governor, for it was he, walk straight to the calling-book, dip a pen in the inkstand at its side, and write an entry. There was something startlingly robot-like about these movements and, as the figure retreated towards the door, Lushmoor noticed that, although the eyes were wide open, they were expressionless and unreflecting. So Sir Oscar was both sleep-talker and sleep-walker! His Excellency switched off the light as he left the office and also, on regaining the landing, the lamps above the stairhead.
After a minute or more of darkness Lushmoor flicked the office light on again and looked in the calling-book. Mr U. Nomi had signed once more and 'in the night-times'.
Lushmoor was natty with his fingers. Nobody inspecting the calling-book four hours after the events just narrated would have told that a whole page (at whose top Sir Oscar had written the name of U. Nomi) had been extracted. This Lushmoor had done after careful reasoning. Sleep-walking, according to Kongean belief, is the result of a soul other than the sleeper's own animating the dormant body—an usurping tenancy which reflected discreditably on the temporarily disowned possessor. To let Ariyasonu know of the Governor's somnambulism would, therefore, never do. Yet there seemed no other way of accounting for the signature: so it must be got rid of.
One other point Lushmoor had to decide. Should he tell Preen? Ever since Lady Sallerton's illness Preen had, Lushmoor thought, shown symptoms of antipathy towards Sir Oscar. If His Excellency had also noticed them he probably interpreted them as reactions to his own sarcasms and mordant criticisms. Lushmoor, however, suspected a deeper source; for he knew that Preen, like himself, had felt the Governor's treatment of his wife to be callous if not caddish. If Preen were now told of His Excellency's somnambulism, could he be relied upon in his present mood to keep the matter to himself? Or would he sooner or later retail it as a tit-bit of gossip in the club or at the police mess? The latter eventuality was certainly not impossible, so Lushmoor decided to run no chances and to keep his lips sealed.
In coming to this decision he was quite unaware that the Police, in liaison with Preen, were still intermittently interested in the riddle of the Nomi signatures. The Detective Branch indeed, not unnaturally, suspected their authorship to be associated with that of the pseudonymous Tom, Dick and Harry entries. The two young men known to have been responsible for the latter admitted it without demur; but, asked whether they had ever taken any other liberties with the calling-book, they answered 'No'.
Although this reply was believed it was decided, with usual police thoroughness, to subject the two young men to a test. Two Assistant Superintendents were detailed to engage them in conversation at the next Government. House reception and to report their reactions when, by pre-arrangement, Preen should announce the name U. Nomi. The Governor, so Preen assured the Commissioner, never paid attention to the announcements but shook hands mechanically with each guest as he walked by.
Preen intended, but forgot, to forewarn Lushmoor of this experiment. Consequently, when the day of the party arrived and Preen, amid several hundred other announcements, called out 'Mr U. Nomi,' Lushmoor gave a visible start. Knowing what he knew, his next reaction was to look at the Governor. Others were looking at him too; for His Excellency, having ejaculated 'Give me a chair', had subsided into it in apparent collapse. Dr Thraplow hurried to his help, but was waved angrily aside and his place taken by Dr Strathless, the Principal Medical Officer. Supported by the latter and by Preen, Sir Oscar, grey and trembling, suffered himself to be led away to his private apartments. A buzz of conversation ensued, guest asking guest whether they should stay longer or take their leave.
This point was settled by the reappearance of Dr Strathless with a message from their host. His Excellency wished the party to proceed and his guests to enjoy it as though nothing had happened. The Governor's condition, Dr Strathless added, afforded no cause for alarm or concern, though he would not be able to move among them as usual or to shake hands on their departure. So the party went on.
A bulletin issued from Government House next morning stated that the Governor had suffered from heat stroke. Subsequent bulletins, however, seemed to show that this had been a euphemism, and within the week it was announced that His Excellency, accompanied by a medical officer, would be leaving for England on recuperative leave by the s.s. Lithuania.
In after years Lushmoor would sometimes ask himself whether he ought not to have insisted upon telling the Principal Medical Officer of Sir Oscar's somnambulism and of his having himself written the name of U. Nomi in the calling-book. He would certainly have done so had Dr Strathless been ordinarily human and approachable. Unfortunately, however, the doctor was not of the sort that invites or accepts the confidences of a young man. When Lushmoor began with 'I think I ought to tell you, Sir,' Dr Strathless cut him short with 'There is nothing, Mr Lushmoor, that you ought to tell me, or that I ought to hear from you. Remember that you are a Private Secretary. Sir Oscar's medical history is well known to me from his own lips. I enjoy his complete confidence and possess ample data for correct diagnosis. It is not a case for lay observation.' Thus effectually snubbed, Lushmoor retreated to his office in silence.
The telegram reporting Sir Oscar Sallerton's death on board ship stated, without further detail, that it followed a severe heart attack. It was the following passages in a letter to Preen from the accompanying Medical Officer that worried Lushmoor's conscience.
'...It was a very sudden attack. H.E. seemed in good form and was sitting on deck when the Purser handed him a typed list of entries for the ship's sports. He glanced at it, put his hand to his heart, and fell sideways off his chair—dead. The only other piece of news is that we appear to have a mystery man aboard. When the notice inviting entries for the sports was posted up a Mr U. Nomi wrote his name down for several events. The fellow has never turned up for his heats, and now it transpires that there is nobody of that name on the Passenger List!'
Twenty years later Sir Tobias Lushmoor, K.C.M.G., now himself a Colonial Governor, found himself at a London dinner placed next to that lively octogenarian Sir Nathan Farmley, once Colonial Secretary of Luganda.
'I'm not a bit surprised,' Sir Nathan said, 'to hear that Sallerton wasn't popular in Kongea. We were damned glad, I remember, when he got promoted out of Luganda. None of us trusted him, and there was something fishy about his suppression of our first trouble in the Sasseni area. It flared up again seven years later, when the tribesmen complained that Sallerton had somehow managed to spirit away an itinerant medicine man. What was his name now? Ah! yes, I've got it—Umfalaga Nomi. The stories were so contradictory that nobody could make head or tail of them; but they left many of us with the suspicion that the fellow might have been disposed of—well, improperly.'
'Murdered, you mean?'
'I don't know about "murdered"; but some young spiritualists, messing about with their ouija board one night, professed to have got a message through from Nomi. It was for Sallerton, and the young idiots posted him a copy. He never acknowledged it though; it must have been about the time he first went to Kongea.'
'What sort of a message was it?'
'I can give it you word for word, I think. It stuck in my memory because it sounded like fake Bible stuff.
By thine own hand shall it be written in the book that I have called upon thee: my name shall be declared in the congregation. The waves of the sea shall cover thee; that thou mayest go down with me into the pit.
A dead man's private account book, just a bare record of payments and payees, can arouse curiosity. What dealings, now, can Jack Robinson have had with Jones, Smith and Jones, Ltd.? Artists' colourmen, of course; a very-well-known firm. Yet Jack never cared for pictures; certainly did not paint. A gift to a niece, perhaps, or accommodation for an artist friend? But had Robinson either? What a field for speculation, for imaginings! A rich quarry, such an account book, for the inventive novelist.
It was not, however, in any such generalised terms that Eustace Brayne was thinking, as he sat in the library of Sheldrake Hall, running through items in a ledger laid open on the writing-cabinet. He had already found out what he set out to find. The annual premium on Uncle Malcolm's fire policy had been duly paid before his death. Eustace's first anxiety as inheritor of Sheldrake Hall was thereby allayed. He had not liked the look of the electric wiring in his bedroom. The old-fashioned wooden strip-casing had in several places come away from the walls, and the flex of the bed-lamp had fused while he was reading last night. The whole installation clearly demanded immediate overhaul, even if he should have to sell the place for lack of means to live in it. That was his second anxiety and the reason why, having set his mind at rest about the insurance, he was still delving into the ledger. He wanted to know what it had cost his uncle to live there in a comfortable but modest way. This should have been easily ascertainable from a smaller book, labelled 'Monthly Summaries, Sheldrake', that lay beside the ledger. A difficulty, however, had arisen. The monthly totals shown in the summaries did not tally with those in the ledger. The latter were often much larger and must, Eustace inferred, include expenditure unconnected with Sheldrake.
The entries in both books covered a period of some seven years, beginning in April 1928, and ending with pencil postings made, probably in bed, for the writing was shaky, during Malcolm Brayne's last illness. It was in the course of examining the handwriting, out of curiosity to see whether the onset of illness was reflected in its deterioration, that Eustace noticed that the discrepancy between the totals first became considerable in the summer months of 1933. Until then they had corresponded more or less; but thereafter there appeared in the ledger large payments which Eustace was now marking with a cross against each, with a view to more particular scrutiny on the morrow. At first sight they appeared to fall, roughly, into two classes: handsome donations to charitable institutions, and presents—or loans, maybe—to individuals.
Closing the books and shutting the cabinet, for the daylight was fast failing, Eustace mixed himself a glass of whisky and water and sat down in an arm-chair to think things over. His uncle had been a bit of an enigma. Malcolm Brayne was a name still remembered in the city, although it was quite ten years since he sold his agency business, built up gradually over forty strenuous years, for incorporation in an older and larger firm of world-wide ramifications. After the sale he left London for good, bought Sheldrake Hall, and there lived the life almost of a recluse, seldom being seen outside its garden and park. Business acquaintances—he had no business friends—used to say of him that he listened but never told, got but never gave, ventured and never lost. A shrewd, severe, silent, secretive, successful man, he had never been known to overstep the tapes of commercial morality. If it was never said of him that he was honourable, that may have been because he eschewed on principle any project or transaction that might possibly involve a point of honour; such was his conception of business. Trade for him must be strictly impersonal; quite outside the humanities. When his only brother and sister-in-law, Eustace's parents, lost their lives in the sinking of the Pindaric, Malcolm added without comment an orphan nephew to his schedule of assets and liabilities. Unmarried, and too old to look for a wife, he found himself thus furnished with a ready-made heir. It was not inconvenient, so he made provision for a suitable upbringing. Eustace went to Ruggenham and Oxbridge; his holidays and vacations were spent in reading-parties or on educative Mediterranean cruises. Only twice or three times a year would the youth be invited to stay at No. 18 Braxington Gardens for a few days, in order to undergo avuncular inspection. How well he remembered quailing under the scrutiny of a clean-shaven Mr Dombey in that dark, austere dining-room! The first visit to Sheldrake had been less perturbing; and on later visits he found his uncle increasingly humanised, sometimes even companionable. During one such visit conversation turned towards the future. 'Eustace,' the old man said, 'I want to see you called to the Bar before I die. You won't need to practise, if you don't want to, for I shall leave you means to live as and where you choose. But it is better to be known as a young barrister that as a jeune riche; safer too. Do not therefore disappoint me.' Eustace didn't. In addition to his B.A. he took an honours degree in law, and duly ate his dinners. Shortly after being called he was offered, as the result of an Oxbridge friendship, an assistant-secretaryship in the Omnibus Assurance Company and settled down unambitiously to that.
The reason for his uncle's retirement, Eustace reflected (helping himself to more whisky), must have been the doctor's warning about his heart. He had been given ten years more to live, and the prognosis was verified almost exactly by the event. He very nearly died, though, during his second winter at Sheldrake; and it was in the summer of his recovery that Eustace first noticed an improvement in his moods and sociability. He began to talk about, and to write to, friends of whom he had never before spoken; and several of them were asked to stay at Sheldrake. Those of them that Eustace met there seemed to have one point in common. Not one of them appeared to be aware that he or she had been a friend of Malcolm's! They gave the impression of liking him now all right, but spoke of him rather (so Eustace felt) as a missionary might speak of a converted and reformed head-hunter. So also did Mrs Appleton, whom he had installed as housekeeper after telling Eustace that she was the relict of an old friend.
The thought of Mrs Appleton switched the young man's attention from past to present, from Uncle Malcolm to himself. If he could afford to live at Sheldrake, would Mrs Appleton consent to stay on as housekeeper? It would not be so easy a job for her if, as he intended, there were to be weekend parties and frequent guests. He hoped that she might, however, for the comfort and cosiness of Sheldrake was mainly of her creation. She had transmuted a barrack into a home. Look at those flowers, now! They made all the difference to the library. What were they, by the way? Walking to the mantelpiece Eustace took a near look at them. Forget-me-nots. He had never seen them before of so dark a blue: more like anchusas. They smelt too: 'a Chinesey smell,' he said to himself, as he walked back to his chair and his drink.
He took a sip or two but did not sit down, for he no longer felt restful. What a blamed idiot he had been just now ever to think of taking on Mrs Appleton as a fixture! There would be no need of, no place for, a lady housekeeper if—no! when...It was late now, past midnight, but he simply must write to Isobel at once. He dashed to the writing-cabinet and reopened it.
The envelope that Peddle, the garden boy, took to the early post next morning, contained the following letter:
For five whole days I have fooled myself in a pretence of trying to forget you—as you insisted I must. My darling, it's quite impossible. Your eyes have just gazed into mine out of a vase of blue, deep-blue, forget-me-nots: so I knew at once that you were thinking of me. Yes, yes you were—and lovingly, too, for there was a tiny twinkle in them. I promised not to call round or ring up for a full week, but I never promised not to write. It's better than telephoning for I can kiss the notepaper and send it to you. There! see those smudges? Did I ever tell you, darling, that you have a large mouth? I hate women with little mouths, but yours is perfectly perfect—and I want it so. I just can't stick being without you, and you've simply got to come and see this place that I've come into. Telegraph that you'll come to lunch the day after tomorrow, and bring Vivian with you if you must. If you don't wire I shall meet the I I o'clock from London all the same, for you've got to come.
Yours and yours only,
P.S. For God's sake telegraph, or I shall go mad.
Before getting into bed Eustace caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the wash-hand basin. He smiled wryly at the reflection, and addressed it. 'All the same, you had forgotten her, you know; for quite three hours!'
Eustace's letter must have reached London in time for the afternoon delivery next day; for a telegraph boy cycled up the Sheldrake drive just as Eustace was sitting down to tea. Tearing the envelope open he read:
I WILL CATCH AND VIVIAN MISS TRAIN YOU MENTION—ISOBEL
He tipped the boy a florin.
In spite of expectancy the morning and afternoon had passed not too slowly for Eustace, nor without consolation. None of the formidable items in the ledger proved on a careful survey to be annually recurrent. They could only represent lump-sum disbursements, final and complete. A copy of his uncle's will and a list of his investments arrived by the midday post. The former had not been read after the funeral, having to be recovered from a safe deposit; but the lawyers had previously told him the gist. Everything was left to him and unconditionally. The investments totalled considerably more than he had anticipated. Even after deduction of death duties he would certainly have the wherewithal to live at Sheldrake. A third enclosure to the lawyers' letter was the copy of one received by them a few days before his uncle's death. It was in his handwriting, written in pencil, but without date or signature. The envelope, they said, had been addressed to them by some uneducated person, to judge by the spelling; probably a servant or nurse. The letter read strangely but seemed to call for no action either by him or them.
To Messrs. Lurgoyne and Bidmore
Assisted by a horticultural phenomenon I have checked up on all invisible debts incidentally incurred by me in the course of my career. I have liquidated them in full; although none of them would receive cognizance from law or custom. If, after my demise, any claims should be lodged with you or my heir, you are to reject them out of hand. My audit has been exhaustive and final. Please to furnish a copy of this letter to my nephew: I am too weak to write myself.
'So that,' muttered Eustace, 'accounts for those ledger entries. The old chap has been doling out conscience money; some fifteen thousand pounds in all, if I have totted them up right. I hope the recording angel has made equivalent postings to his credit! Anyhow I come in for a clean inheritance: not that I should have worried much where the splosh came from anyway. Why, who's that coming up the drive? Oh! the parson, damn it!'
The Rev James Forthwright promised not to stay long. He was calling to explain that he could not accede to the late Mr Brayne's request that a proverb should be engraved on his tombstone.
'Yes. "It's never too late to mend." When I visited him during his first illness, three years ago, he said that he supposed I had come to expound to him the comforts of purgatory, and that he intended to leave instructions for that proverb to be engraved on his tombstone. I had of course to explain that whatever conception one may have of it, and our Articles of Religion do no more than repudiate the Romish one, Purgatory certainly cannot be comfortable. When Mr Brayne objected that he understood the word "purgatory" to be derived from a Latin expression meaning a "second chance" I realised that his knowledge of languages was as defective as his ideas of Church doctrine.'
'He never had any proper schooling,' Eustace interposed; 'he was an entirely self-made man. Rather wonderful, I think.'
'Very,' assented the vicar, 'but I wanted to warn you that he may have left instructions about that proverb; though I impressed upon him that amends must be made in this life so far as repentance, grace and opportunity may render them possible.'
'Well, I have proof here in my pocket that he took your counsel to heart, Vicar. Read this letter which the lawyers have sent me.'
Mr Forthwright read it slowly, and with a puzzled expression.
'H'm. Rather lacking in humility, I fear. Not exactly a troubled spirit or a broken and contrite heart.'
'What can he have meant by assistance from a horticultural phenomenon, I wonder?'
'I don't know, I'm sure; but he was always very proud of his garden here, and most generous in providing flowers for the altar. Regarded them as proxies perhaps,' added the vicar with a touch of bitterness, 'for he never came near it himself. Ah! and now I come to think of it, he made a most peculiar suggestion to me one day.'
'What was that?'
'He asked whether he should send a bunch of forget-me-nots for the confessional! I feared that he was being flippant; but his expression told me that the offer was made in all seriousness.'
'I never knew him anything else but serious,' Eustace commented, as Mr Forthwright rose to take his leave, 'but I quite agree with you about not putting that proverb on his tombstone. Many thanks for coming to tell me about it. Well, goodbye, Vicar, and I'll tell young Peddle to continue taking down flowers to the church. You will see me there sometimes, though I'm afraid that I'm not too regular.'
After the parson's departure Eustace began a tour of the garden. He was not much of a gardener himself, but knew enough to appreciate that its condition and appearance reflected very creditably on Halden and young Peddle. It was while he was examining the timber supports of the fruit-cage, reported by Halden to be rotten, that he saw Mrs Appleton coming down the cinder-path, presumably in search of him.
'Oh, there you are, Mr Eustace. I've come to ask whether you'll let me have the key of the bookcase cupboard in the library. I placed your uncle's diary there until we should be lighting the hot-water stove; for I promised him to see it burnt. The sweep has been such a long time coming, but he's been this morning and the stove is already lit.'
Eustace hesitated a moment before replying. 'That's all right, Mrs Appleton,' he said, 'but I rather think that as executor and sole legatee I ought to have a glance through the diary first. I'll do so tonight; it'll keep me employed. And, by the way, Mrs Appleton, there'll be a lady coming to lunch tomorrow: so will you please tell them to have the east room ready?'
'Certainly I will, Mr Eustace—and, er, perhaps I ought to take this opportunity of saying that I shall have to leave you and Sheldrake this autumn. I shall be sad to do so, but I have to make a home for my mother and younger sister. It was so kind of your uncle to buy me an annuity. It will make our combined resources sufficient for us to live comfortably in a quiet way.'
'A due return for services rendered, Mrs Appleton. You certainly made my uncle very happy here. It's quite different now from when he first came.'
'Thank you, Mr Eustace, I've certainly tried to do my best; but I shan't be quite happy in my mind until that diary is burnt, as he told me.'
'Oh! You needn't worry about that. I promise to let you have it by Sunday, at latest.'
'Thank you; and now I'll go and give orders about the lady. I hope she'll like Sheldrake. It has great charm, hasn't it?'
The question was not intended for reply. Mrs Appleton turned down the grass path between the espaliers and was soon lost to sight. It annoyed Eustace to suspect that he may have blushed a little when telling her of Isobel's visit on the morrow.
On the way back to the house he noticed in one of the borders a clump of the dark-blue forget-me-nots. They did not look so attractive as in the vase last night, and were in fact beginning to go to seed. The blue was almost black in the dusk.
During dinner he read a detective story: a poor one, he thought, but it served to pass the time and keep him from eating too fast. He took coffee in the library and, while the cup was cooling, rummaged in the cupboard for the diary. He found it, a large and heavy volume, and sitting down in the armchair placed it on his knee, lit a cigar and began sipping his coffee. As he did so something fell from the book on to the floor at his side. He picked it up and replaced it: a pressed and dried dark-blue forget-me-not with leaves and stalk.
Although the word 'Diary' was embossed in gilt lettering on the cover the volume did not prove to be a diary in any proper sense. On the front page was written in capital letters 'NOTES OF FINAL AUDIT AND ADJUSTMENT'; and On the second, at its top 'LEONARD AND DAPHNE DE HEAVILAND, £500'.
Turning over the pages Eustace found a series of paragraphs or chapters, varying from one to fifteen pages long, each similarly headed by a name, or names, and a figure in pounds, shillings and pence. With considerable curiosity he set himself to read the first note or chapter, parts of which may be here reproduced.
Mrs Heaviland's letter (undated: Takeokuta postmark 7 Jan 1933) arrived 9.2.33, opened 3.3.33, i.e. after my recovery, which doctors thought improbable. Vicar's visit was about middle February. I never attend church, but he said it was his duty visit all sick persons. Read something from prayer-book about repentance and declaring debts: asked if I had made a will—no business of his, whatever's in book. Got on to future life. Argument. Doesn't know what life is: exercise of will, planning and achieving. Worms, weeds, etc., alive in sense only that they grow: they don't live. If no exercise of will after death it is extinction. [*****] Agree strict man of business must make final audit, close his books before dying. Prayer-book right there. [*****] Self-made man owes nobody nothing [sic]; must liquidate obligations. Mrs Heaviland's letter clinches matter. Paste it in here:
My husband died in Takeokuta hospital yesterday of cerebral malaria. You killed him by persuading him to come at his age to this hellish climate. He did good work for you: this was your return. He spoke loyally of you to the last, for he was blind to your callousness. On the last day but one he made me promise to send you enclosed packet of seeds to try in your greenhouse. The native name for them is 'seeds of remembrance', and they come from blue flowers on Mount Keriapalu. He told me to tell you this. For myself I hope that you may find in them the seeds of remorse.
Language of hysteria. True, I got Josiah Pagworth offer him job with Cinchona Plantations. Was crocking up in my office and I wanted promote young Chidworth. [*****] Many people older than Heaviland survive in Kongea. Mosquito, not me, responsible. Paste in my reply.
I regret your husband's death. Had he not left my service for better-paid employment you as his widow would have received a gratuity of £500 under my Scheme AQ for compassionate grants. I have decided to stretch a point in recognition of his past satisfactory work for me and enclose a draft for that amount on the General and Eastern Bank, Takeokuta Branch. Please sign and return enclosed receipt form. I thank you for the packet of seed; your late husband's wishes in regard to them will be respected.
Mrs Heaviland's reply says she will not touch tainted money: has endorsed draft to order of Medical Mission. No matter: her gift not mine. All square with Heavilands. Seeds came up. Flowers like forget-me-nots but darker. [*****] Sneezed after smelling; effect like snuff. Brain cleared: memory too better. Hence perhaps native name; they know more about herbs than us. Specimen pressed and pasted on next page.
So much for the first entry. Eustace sat on reading others well into the small hours. It amazed him what things his uncle had remembered. Some recipients of his cheques or postal orders must have thought him crazy. A sixpenny stamp, for example, was sent to a Mr Jones who had once lent him a pencil that he forgot to return. But among trivial items there occurred now and again entries that struck Eustace as sinister or even ugly. The cruelty to a dog, for instance, that was atoned for by a cheque of £100 to the R.S.P.C.A. At irregular intervals the succession of notes was broken by paragraphs headed 'PROGRESS REPORT'. One of the earlier ones ran as follows.
Halden has succeeded in raising more of the Heaviland seedlings. They flower better if planted out in the open. I find from the gazetteer that Keriapalu is nearly 10,000 ft. high, and night temperatures must be cold. The assistance lent by the flowers to my audit is most valuable. I had completely forgotten about that deal with Mabelson. He was a fool to accept my offer, but I was unable to treat his letter otherwise than as an acceptance. He died penniless, I believe, but without wife or dependants.
The clock striking two as he read this, Eustace decided to leave till tomorrow the remainder of the case-notes; but curiosity compelled him to find and peruse the other progress reports. They were easier to read than the notes, being free of contractions and abbreviations. The name of Greville Mabelson recurred in nearly all of them, but his case appeared to defy settlement. Here are some excerpts:
The flowers are helping Mabelson more than me. They make me remember his appearance too well. I had forgotten till now that he said to me 'Some day, Brayne, you will regret this...'
I shall have to give up smelling the flowers. They focus my attention only on Mabelson, and he has left no successors or representatives...
Mabelson keeps breaking in on me, even without the flowers. I seem to see and hear him in the room with me: a silly, senile illusion. Despite him I am completing all other settlements...
The final progress report may be quoted in full.
The settlement is complete. Happily; for my strength is giving out and the end is near. I have told Mrs Appleton to burn this book after my death. The final certificate at its end I will sign tomorrow. My will provides all necessary guidance for my executors. The settlements herein recorded are by me and for me alone. I meant to add a codicil to my will commanding that the book be placed with me in my coffin, but it is too late now. No matter; it can be cremated separately. It is ridiculous of Mabelson to say that he and I will meet tomorrow and that he forgives me. Forgiveness is no settlement, and I will not have it.
Before putting the book away and going to bed, Eustace looked for the 'final certificate'. It was there all right—but unsigned.
After breakfast next morning Eustace asked Mrs Appleton whether she had been present at his uncle's death.
'Probably,' she replied, 'but none of us could tell the exact moment of his passing. He went so peacefully. Oh! Mr Eustace, I was so surprised and thankful, for all the morning he had been so restless and strange.'
'Strange? In what way?'
'Well, he kept telling me to take the diary away after calling for it, and then bidding me bring it back again. Six or seven times this happened and all the while he seemed to be talking with someone, though his voice was so low as to be inaudible. Then at about midday he scribbled some capital letters in pencil on a page near the end of the book, and sank back exhausted. He never seemed to regain consciousness, and died during the afternoon. Just faded away.'
'What were the letters he wrote? Could you see?
'Oh! just a jumble of two or three. They didn't spell anything.'
'Thank you, Mrs Appleton. I wonder if you'd mind coming into the library for a moment, and showing me whereabouts in the diary he wrote those letters?'
They walked across the hall and, as they did so, a strong scent of flowers was wafted in from the open door. In it Eustace sensed something Chinesey, like a faint smell of joss-stick. 'There,' said Mrs Appleton, pointing to a page near the end of the diary, 'it looks like "E. & O.E.", doesn't it?'
'Yes, a well-known commercial abbreviation: Errors and Omissions Excepted. You can take the book away now and burn it, Mrs Appleton. Many thanks.'
It remains only to record that Miss Isobel Paynton came, as arranged, to Sheldrake; saw, and was conquered. She and Eustace were married in October. As they sat, one December evening, over a log fire he told her about Uncle Malcolm's diary.
'You must tell Halden not to raise any more of those flowers,' she said.
'But why not?'
'Well, you see, darling, one always remembers the nice things that happen. But there are bound to be other things too. I shouldn't like to be married to a man, or you, darling, to a woman, who couldn't sometimes conveniently forget!'
While playing out the last hymn at evensong in the Abbey yesterday the organist was seen to collapse and fall forward over the console. A church warden and two choirmen hastened to his assistance; and, having announced that the collection would be taken at the doors, Canon Glenside closed the service forthwith by pronouncing the Benediction. Since his appointment to the organ last year Mr R. Fulstowe, F.R. C.O., has effected great improvement in the Abbey music, and we are happy to record that his condition last night was reported as one of rapid recovery.
Thus the Scarminster Mercury of 15th October 1931. A dull enough paragraph! Little description and no story. Indeed the Canon had himself written and communicated it, in an anxiety to forestall the curiosity of reporters. For the happening had been ugly, and of a sort that none who were present can ever forget.
Hell had been loosed on their ears by a sprawling, immobile, surpliced body whose hands, elbows and forehead lay over, and at many points upon, the keys of three manuals. In its lunge forward a knuckle had knocked against the pneumatic piston that gives voice to the full organ, and the resultant blare was insufferable. A volume of Bach's fugues too had fallen on to the pedals and depressed half an octave of them. The whole church was aquake; the pews quivered. Many of their occupants pressed fingers into their ears; all of them glared protestingly towards the console, and at the inert sagging figure there huddled. The startled faces of the choristers resembled those of gargoyles. Although to sit still among such pandemonium was horrible, nobody stirred. Except for one man, and he, mercifully, with the sense and knowledge to act. Tearing apart the transept curtains verger Rustley pounced upon and turned the stopcock of the hydraulic bellows. A second later the mad fury of sound wailed into thudding silence. Thudding, because every ear throbbed with a quickened and disordered heartbeat. Then it was that Canon Glenside stuttered out his notice about the offertory and gave the Benediction. The choir retreated to the vestry in distracted groups of three or four, forgetting to form file, while the congregation hurried to the doors without waiting for its recession. Never had the stately order of an Abbey service been so interrupted and truncated.
Canon Glenside called on his organist early next morning, 'But you must tell me, Fulstowe,' he was saying, 'what overtook you so suddenly. The doctor, you say, cannot account for it. Well, naturally I have to satisfy myself, and you, I suggest, yourself, that there is no possibility of another such exhibition; for I can call it no less. It was quite horrible; the worst sort of advertisement for our Abbey services. Hints are already abroad, no doubt unjustly, of a lapse from sobriety. Surely you must see, don't you, the necessity of a full understanding between us, whatever is said to or by the public?'
Fulstowe rose from his chair, walked to the fireplace and kicked a large lump of coal that lay in the grate. Then turning slowly round he faced the Canon with an expression at once unhappy and quizzical. 'Why, of course, Canon, I want to explain; very much so. But the difficulty is that I can't explain the explanation. In point of fact I saw and felt something that couldn't have been there!'
'H'm,' grunted the Canon. 'Well, anyhow, you'd better tell me what you thought you saw and felt. Though, mind you, I don't at all like the idea of a person having hallucinations in a consecrated building.'
'Very well, I'll try. As it happens the source of my hallucinations—if you like to call them that, and I hope to goodness you're right—was something that has never been consecrated. I know that as a fact, for it wasn't in the Abbey until Saturday.'
'Do you mean that Sapstead memorial tablet? It's to be dedicated in the near future. I didn't realise that you could see it from the organ.'
'One can't. No, I was alluding to the mirror above the console. You will remember my telling you that the mercury was perishing at the back of the old one, and that you suggested my looking around for a cheap replacement. Walking down Raymond Street on Thursday I saw the very thing we needed in that second-hand furniture shop—Mortimer's, isn't it?—and I bought it for only eighteen-and-six. Rustley helped me to screw it up after lunch on Saturday. It fitted almost exactly: even Rustley approved, and you know what he is.'
'My wife has picked up a good thing or two at Mortimer's,' the Canon remarked, 'but what has your purchase to do with your collapse yesterday?'
'I was just coming to that. At Mattins on Sunday I was at once struck by the clearness of the reflections in the glass; they seemed to me almost—what shall I say?—three-dimensional. My own image looked as though it were some actual person peering down at me through the frame. The face was rather unshaven too, but on touching my chin I found it as smooth as usual. As a matter of fact I'd put a new blade in my safety razor that morning. Then during the prayer for the church militant the reflection appeared to shake its head at me, although I felt myself to be sitting quite motionless. The thing had begun to get on my nerves, so I made up my mind not to look at the glass again. I didn't either, until the service was over and I was locking up the keyboard.'
'And what then?' the Canon rapped out, for the organist had ceased speaking and appeared to be lost in thought.
'What then? Why, it smiled at me and—and it had a gold filling in one of the front teeth.' At this point Fulstowe jerked his head up and round with a forced laugh. 'Well, as you can see, Canon, I haven't! If you will excuse me a moment I will slip into the dining-room for a nip of brandy. I don't feel too good.'
The Canon's face reddened at this interruption. He was a teetotaller. Would he have to look for a new organist? Most unfortunate, if so, for this one played well and got so much out of the choir. Still, if the fellow took to seeing things in the Abbey and to nips of brandy within half an hour of breakfast, it would become a plain duty to...
At this point the clerical conscience was relieved by the reappearance of its disturber and an immediate resumption of his tale.
'Sorry, Canon, but I never got a wink of sleep last night, and am all to pieces this morning. Well, at evensong I couldn't help throwing an occasional glance at the mirror while playing the first voluntary. It's my habit to do so. To begin with everything was as usual. Then gradually there seemed to be reflected in it a sort of view.'
'The choir-stalls, I presume,' the Canon muttered impatiently, shuffling his feet on the rug.
'No; an outdoor view. The front of some country house with turrets at either end and a square tower in the middle. I saw the outline first during the Absolution, and it gained in distinctness every time I glanced at it. By the middle of the first lesson it was as though I peeped through a small window on to a real scene. It was a terribly queer sensation, and during the second lesson a curious development took place. My own reflection which was in the forefront of what I saw began to recede; to be becoming part of the picture, as it were. I felt too as though I were being dragged forward. It was only by a great effort of concentration that I managed to accompany the anthem, and I dared not trust myself to look at the glass during the following prayers and hymn. When you began the sermon, however, I gave way to my curiosity and took another look. As I did so, the whole prospect seemed to move towards me; and as a result, the two end turrets passed out of view and the central tower grew larger and larger. At its middle first-floor window I could now see my own head and surpliced shoulders, small at first but returning to life-size as the window came nearer and nearer; so near at last that the top and bottom of the tower were out of sight and only the window remained. It was then that I became aware that the figure was no longer mine Surplices do not have collars and buttons; what it was wearing was an old-fashioned nightshirt. Nor was the face mine, or I hoped not. There were dark rings under the eyes, the cheeks were yellowish and the eyebrows grey: the chin was unshaven. Through the crack between the lips I could just see the gold-stopped tooth that I had seen after Mattins. Its hands were now visible, the fingers clutching the window-sill with tips bent over it. Suddenly two things gripped my attention. First, that the finger-tips protruded not merely over the window-sill but over the frame of the mirror itself. They were nearer to me than the reflecting surface! Second, that the head which had usurped the place of mine was bleeding profusely from the neck. Before I had time to consider these developments, which nevertheless set me shivering, you were ending your sermon with the doxology and giving out the hymn. As I began playing it out I noticed what looked like a splash of blood on the swell manual and in my surprise glanced upwards at the mirror. I saw there a throat slit from ear to ear and oozing great clots of blood. I gave a gasp and at that very moment the clawing hands shot forward from the mirror frame and downward to clutch my shoulders. It was then that I must have fainted; I felt an icy clamp round my neck and everything went black. Oh God! I must have another drink.'
The Canon rose with a frown and stared aimlessly out of the window. He was thankful that Fulstowe had left the room, though disapproving his purpose. It afforded time to think of what to say. He must not be too sympathetic, for the possible necessity of the organist's dismissal pressed uncomfortably on his mind. On the other hand he must not appear callous or offhand, for the man had obviously suffered a catastrophe of imagination for which he deserved pity. Really, a most difficult situation to find oneself in! What should, what could he say? In his quandary he grabbed and crushed with his right hand a frond of a fern that languished in a flower-pot on the window table. A knock at the hall door caused him to turn round with a start; he tore the leaf right off and dropped it, crumpled, onto the carpet.
The knock also brought Fulstowe back from the dining-room, apparently quite recomposed. 'Who's there?' he said. 'Come in.'
Verger Rustley did so; and, seeing the Canon, addressed him obsequiously.
'I beg your pardon, Sir, but I didn't know as your reverence were here. I wanted a short word with Mr Fulstowe; but it can well wait, and I'll step in later when he's disengaged.'
'No, Rustley, don't go,' the Canon smiled, grateful for the interruption; 'you'll be pleased, I'm sure, to find Mr Fulstowe so quickly recovered from his collapse yesterday evening.'
'Indeed I am, Sir; especially as having been and had a collapse myself, a thing that's never happened before. Yes, Sir, this very morning. When I was opening up the Abbey, it was. "Why you're looking as white as a corpse," said Mrs Rustley to me when I got back to breakfast. Couldn't eat much of it either.'
'I'm very sorry to hear it, Rustley,' the Canon rejoined with some asperity. 'I had always regarded you as dependable. Faints and collapses denote a lack of self-control, you know. One has to keep a grip on things.'
'I'm far from boasting of it, your reverence; but anyone who saw what I saw—or what Mr Fulstowe saw yesterday, if I may make a guess—would come near to fainting. I feel sure of that.'
At this the organist broke in with eager interest; 'What did you see, Rustley? Nothing to do with the looking-glass we screwed up on Saturday, I hope?'
'Ah! Then you did see it. I thought as much and said so to Mrs Rustley. Yes, Sir, blood dripping from that glass and splashed all over the organ lid. Leastways that's what it looked like, but when I came to from my fainting—for I never could abear the sight of blood—it was all gone and no mess at all to clean up. Optical illusion is what Mrs Rustley calls it. Anyhow it wasn't that as I came to see Mr Fulstowe about, though it has to do with the mirror. Mortimer's have taken it back.'
'Taken it back?' exclaimed Fulstowe. 'Why, I paid them for it and have got the receipt.'
'Yes, Sir, but it appears that it wasn't theirs to sell. Young Mr Clarence Mortimer came along himself to explain, and asked me to hand you back the money. Here it is, Sir, seven half-crowns and two sixpences: that's right, I think? His men were taking it down as I came away, and they'll put the old one back till we get a better.'
'Thank God for that.' Fulstowe muttered under his breath, and then aloud: 'What explanation did young Mortimer give? It seems a funny way of doing business.'
'He said as it wasn't their fault but that of the auctioneer at the Curdlestone sale. He'd never had the glass removed from Sir Peregrine's dressing-room, though it was one of the pieces to be reserved. So Mortimer's men took it away, thinking it part of the suite they'd bought. And a rare shindy Sir Peregrine kicked up, he said, when he found it gone. His favourite shaving-glass, as he'd used since at college and had given orders to be sent down to Rodneybury! That's the family seat in Northshire, as you know, Sir; where Sir Peregrine's now gone to.'
Canon Glenside, not relishing the rôle of listener and much annoyed that two of his staff should have been seeing things in the Abbey, had been restive throughout the preceding conversation and now seized the opportunity for interruption and contradiction. 'You are quite wrong, Rustley,' he said, 'in speaking of Rodneybury as the Randhams' family seat. The family was at Curdlestone long before Rodneybury was built. His ancestors would turn in their graves if they knew of the ruin which Sir Peregrine has brought on his inheritance. He will only have plunged deeper into disaster by selling the old estate and retaining such a big place as Rodneybury. However, that's no affair of ours; and I want you, Rustley, to come down with me to the Abbey and point out the places where the south aisle roof is said to be leaking. It wouldn't be good for you and Mr Fulstowe to get talking together about your optical illusions. The sooner foolish things are forgotten the better. What do you keep looking at your wrists for?'
Mr Rustley appeared uneasy. 'I was afraid for a moment, Sir, that blood had got on to the cuffs.'
'Nonsense,' snapped the Canon, now righteously indignant; 'come along with me at once. And as for you, Fulstowe, I advise you to put in some hard practice on Bach's fugues. You'll find them a wholesome antidote to hallucinations. Good morning.'
Seven years later Dr Richard Fulstowe, Mus.Doc., F.R.C.O., was appointed organist of Wintonbury Cathedral. In his rooms above the gateway to the cloisters we find him one morning sitting at breakfast, with the Morning Courier on the table beside his coffee-cup. Having helped himself to porridge he glanced at the pictures on the front page. There are two of them: one of a country mansion and the other of an elderly man. 'Good God!' he mutters; for he instantly recognises both, though he has known neither. The headline underneath is 'BANKRUPT BARONET DEAD', and the letterpress runs as follows:
The inquest is being held today on the body of Sir Peregrine Randham, Bart., which was found yesterday morning on the floor of his dressing-room at Rodneybury Towers (pictured above), with the throat cut. It lay before his accustomed shaving-mirror and was clad only in a nightshirt. The deceased Baronet (photo inset) had been involved in bankruptcy proceedings, as recently reported in these columns. Sir Peregrine will be remembered as a staunch patron of the Turf, and as owner of Red Blade, the winner of the Grinfield Plate in 1929.
It chanced that on the afternoon of the day when Dr Fulstowe read this at breakfast Canon Glenside was also in Wintonbury, attending a synod. Thus it was that the two happened to meet at tea-time in the lounge of Caius Hotel. The Canon having a Morning Courier in his hand, Dr Fulstowe's conversational gambit was inevitable.
'But, my dear Fulstowe,' the Canon remonstrated after five minutes, 'surely you cannot ask me to believe that you saw the ghost of a man who had more than seven years yet to live?'
'Not exactly his ghost, perhaps.'
'Or that a mirror could reflect a place two hundred miles distant from it and an event seven years before its occurrence?'
'Well, Canon, again not exactly.'
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