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Title: Not Exactly Ghosts Author: Andrew Caldecott * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1403341h.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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A Room in a
Branch Line to Benceston
Sonata in D Minor
The Pump in Thorp's Spinney
Whiffs of the Sea
In Due Course
Light in the Darkness
A Victim of Medusa
Fits of the Blues
Narrow in bounds, but wide in variety, the garden of Tilchington Rectory was one of the most beautiful in the South Country. It lay in a hollow, some four to five chains broad, down the middle of which ran a small and clear brook marked on the ordnance map as R. Tilch, but beloved of its riparians as, simply, our stream. For half of its course through the Rectory grounds the little river was impounded by successive dams to form three pools. The two upper of these provided easy watering for vegetables, while the third—into which a waterfall splashed between two clumps of bamboo under overhanging fronds of Osmunda fern—was the central and distinctive feature of the flower garden. On either side were sloping lawns and to the north of it stood the Rectory house, mainly in the Georgian architecture, but partly Victorianised by plate-glass windows. From the third pool, the stream cascaded down through a rock garden to the level of its natural bed, along which it dimpled and chattered by the side of the gravelled carriage drive, past rose-garden and orchard, until it slipped away from the rectory precincts, over a stone sill set in a small arch beneath the boundary wall. All this description has to be in the past tense, because the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have since sold both parsonage and glebe, and, for all that the writer knows, the fell hand of the improver may have fallen upon house, garden and rivulet.
That future rectors of Tilchington would need to live in humbler and less lovely environment never entered the mind of the present incumbent as, on the 17th June, 1900, from a deck-chair on the further lawn, he gazed across ornamental water and flower beds towards a small shrubbery at the eastern end of the house where he had just finished clipping some too exuberant Portugal laurels. He now surveyed the result of his labour with something of that satisfaction which the author of Genesis ascribes to the Creator, who, looking upon his creation, saw that it was good. The Reverend Nigel Tylethorpe was, and appeared, a fortunate and happy young man of thirty or so: happy in his ancestry, in his inheritance from a lately deceased great-uncle of a comfortable financial competency, in education, in mental endowment, in physical looks, in athletic prowess and (for the living of Tilchington was worth over eight hundred a year) in early ecclesiastical preferment. Nor was his parish less fortunate in him than he in Tilchington. Mr Bugles, sexton and verger, had given words to general opinion when he remarked to the People's Warden at the flower show that 't'new parson be the sort of man as'll do us good without us noticing.'
From the shrubbery the Reverend Nigel's eyes passed, with a foreboding of more clipping to be done on the morrow, to the climbers on the house itself. Of these there was a profuse variety: a japonica, wistaria, jasmine, roses and two kinds of ampelopsis. An intrusion into their midst, which he did not admire, was a rectangular patch of thickly-set ivy, which rather ostentatiously concealed a shuttered window on the ground floor. A slight frown flitted across the young man's face, and the pruning shears chattered impatiently in his hand as scissors do in a barber's. He would undoubtedly need to have a final battle with his housekeeper over that silly business of the disused room. Miss Roberta Pristin had served his predecessor for more years than the delicate conventions governing a woman's age would allow her to admit. At his death she had, with persuasive humour, asked Mr Tylethorpe to take her over with the rest of the Rectory fixtures. Except for this one matter of the locked room he did not regret having done so. A bachelor requires quasi-maternal attention, and Miss Pristin was quasi-maternal without being unduly familiar.
The young rector's thoughts were temporarily diverted from this matter of the empty room by the quarter chime of a clock in his dining-room, the french windows of which lay wide open. In another fifteen minutes, at half-past six, he would read the evening office in the chancel of his church, and so he must have a quick wash and brush up after his gardening. The next we see of him, therefore, is five minutes later as he passes across the narrow paddock separating rectory from churchyard. Mention may be found in more than one architectural handbook of the treasures and oddities of St Botolph's, Tilchington: the twelfth-century frescoes, the long tunnel-like hagioscope, the Early English colonnade set on Norman piers and capitals, the narrow chancel arch with remains of screen and rood, etcetera. Nineteenth-century restoration had been unusually discriminative and restrained; so much so that the west end of the building had been left just as it emerged from the demolition of a large and ugly gallery. To regulate the light at the turn of the staircase, now no more, to this gallery a narrow lancet window in the western wall of the south aisle had been walled up and replaced at a higher level by a wood-framed, square-paned window of domestic pattern. The retention by the restorers of a sacred edifice of so secular a feature may have been due to the fact that the glass, though not stained, had received superficial pigmentation and bore a spirited, if unusual, representation of St Michael vanquishing the Prince of Evil.
Mr Tylethorpe resented the survival of a window so completely out of period with the rest of the church and, having read the office and re-hung his surplice in the vestry, he walked down the south aisle with intent to visualise what would be the effect of walling it up and re-opening the lancet window, should the necessary money and faculty be forthcoming. From such general observation, he proceeded to particular examination of the offending feature. There were nine panes, each one foot square, in a main frame of three by three; and the artist had had to dispose his figures accordingly. The top middle pane displayed the haloed head of Michael; the one below it his body; and the nethermost his feet planted firmly upon the prostrate form of Satan, whose proud and rather beautiful head projected from a scaly saurian body. By comparison the visage of the victorious archangel seemed commonplace and slightly bovine. The remaining panes on either side of the central three were taken up with Michael's wings above and with flames emanating from his trampled adversary below. In the two bottom corners, right and left, small oblong frames bore the legends 'Anno 1798' and 'Rev. xii. 7' respectively.
As Mr Tylethorpe glanced at these inscriptions a sudden bright beam from the westering sun flashed through the oblongs and disclosed to his view some very faint writing which a moment before had been invisible. The characters under 'Anno 1798' looked like 'NICOLAS PHAYNE PINXIT', and those under the biblical citation as 'YE TRIUMPH OF AUTHORITIE OVER INTELLIGENCE'. It took the Rector but a moment to realise that they had been imprinted by a die or stamp held upside down; unless, indeed, the writing was intentionally antipodean.
'So it really was him,' muttered the Rector ungrammatically as, standing before the carved list of former incumbents on a panel in the porch, he picked out the name of Nicolas Fayne, 1796-1801. From the porch to a tiny triangle of ground between a large yew tree, the south wall of the graveyard and the swing-gate at its south-west corner took but a minute of his homeward walk. Here again on a flat, heavy, horizontal tomb-slab level with the surrounding grass stood out the name of Nicholas Phaine ('Why couldn't he stick to one spelling?' grumbled the Rector); and, beneath it, the words: 'Found Dead January 27th MDCCCI.' So village tradition had been proved right about that window. Perhaps it might not be far wrong on one or two other points? The triumph of authority over intelligence, indeed! No wonder the inscription was all topsy-turvy: just as well that it had become illegible. Mental derangement was, of course, the most charitable, as it was the most rational, explanation.
The boom of his dinner gong reverberating across the paddock recalled the Rector from speculative reconstuctions of parochial history to a pleasantly certain anticipation of the imminent repast. He had a good cook and a good cellar.
In conversation with his housekeeper after breakfast next morning Mr Tylethorpe declared an immediate intention to inspect the vacant room. Remembering previous parleys on this subject he felt some surprise that she expressed neither remonstrance nor apprehension.
'Very well, sir; and, of course, you'll need the key. I always keep it in this drawer; yes, here it be.'
On his way down the passage, he examined the wooden tab by which she had handed it to him. On it was neatly cut in capital letters:
and underneath in his predecessor, Mr Hempstede's, handwriting appeared in faded ink the injunction: 'Keep Locked'. The key turned readily in the keyhole; for, so long as Miss Pristin had been in charge, the room had been subject to a weekly sweeping. 'An empty place'll always get dirt from somewhere,' she used to say; 'what with rats and all.' With no inlet or outlet for ventilation other than the chimney, the Rector had expected the chamber to smell fusty and musty: he was relieved, therefore, to find its air not unduly oppressive, and proceeded to light the candle which he had brought with him for purposes of inspection. Only two thin streaks of daylight penetrated the shuttered and ivied window. The dimensions were commodious enough—some twenty foot square—for the library or study which he so badly required. That all his reading and writing should be done in a dark corner of the dining-room, subject to the many interruptions inseparable from a punctual preparation and removal of meals, was fair neither to himself nor to the congregation that had to listen to discourses composed under such conditions. Carefully pacing the distance between the side walls and the central projection of fireplace and chimney in the southern wall he was gratified to find that his two glazed bookcases would exactly fit the recesses. The ceiling would require re-plastering; the walls, papering; and much of the floor, re-planking. The wainscot was rotten and must be replaced. A modern fireplace and mantelpiece were also desiderata, if he could afford them, as he thought he could. Gently locking the door behind him Mr Tylethorpe manifested his satisfaction with what he had seen by swinging the key wheel-wise by its tab and string as he returned, whistling, down the passage.
'I wonder, Miss Pristin,' he remarked as he gave it back to her, 'whether you would tell me all you know about that room. You've hinted at certain things, you know!'
'I can only tell, Sir, as I've already told; nor do I know no more. Him as was took in there, more nor a hundred year ago, is buried up by t' church yew, in that parcel of weeds as was never holied, they say. Nobody cared to bide where he were took, so they bricked up door and window and t' room had no hole to it for nigh sixty year. Then come old parson Witacre and set it open again; but for all he called it his "sermon chamber" no sermon did parson Witacre ever preach; for he had impeditations in his speech, and had to hire a guinea curate over from Frampton for to read service whenever unavoidable. My dear late master, 'e come next; and how long it was afore he give order to lock up t' room I don't rightly know: but locked it were what time I come to him and ever after. I mind, Sir, one of them early days asking him to let me use it for linen and what not; but "No," he says; and "Why not?" say I. "Roberta," he answers, that kind and solemn as were always his way with me, "It is wiser to learn from precept than by suffering. You leave that room alone." Them were his words; and leave it alone I ever have, and will; except, of course, for the cleaning which is next to godliness and therefore done regular. That's all I know, Sir, and make of it what you will: but he were a wise and good man, were my late master; and "Leave it alone," he says, "for it be better to learn from precept than by suffering." Them were his words.'
The Rector smiled upon his housekeeper with condescending benevolence: 'Thank you very much, Miss Pristin. I do not of course question for a moment Mr Hempstede's decision to keep the apartment locked and in permanent disuse. In such matters each must be governed by his or her conscience and discretion. I myself naturally mislike the idea of associating the performance of any work pertaining to my sacred office with the reputed scene of a mysterious and violent death. I have, however, analysed my distaste and discovered it to be rooted in sentiment rather than reason; and it would be clearly wrong in me to allow sentiment to acquire the appearance, if not indeed the nature, of superstition. I shall, therefore, take immediate steps to have the room restored and redecorated; and, although I shall certainly not allude to it by the name of sermon chamber, I intend to use it for writing my sermons and for reading. I have no doubt that your late master, if he were here with us today—and who shall say that he is not?—would appreciate my reasoning and applaud my decision. And by the way, Miss Pristin, don't forget to serve butter with the baked potatoes.'
On his way to the dining-room, the Reverend Nigel's conscience smote him for having been what he could not remember having ever been before: pompous and polysyllabic; quite eighteenth-century, in fact! Arrived at his desk he promptly penned a note to Messrs Burnidge & Hesselton, Builders and Decorators, of Minton Road, Trentchester, asking them to send a representative to advise regarding certain points of interior decoration contemplated by him at Tilchington Rectory. Within ten days the representative had come, inspected, advised, estimated, quoted, and eventually carried away in his pocket what he represented to his employers as 'quite a tidy little order'.
To the Rector's keen disappointment the repair and refurbishing of the room took no less than three months, although Burnidge & Hesselton's young man had indicated a maximum period of five weeks. There was not merely delay, but delay from unpleasant causes. Language used by the foreman plasterer, however interesting for a certain archaism and singularity, was nevertheless such as Mr Tylethorpe could not let pass without complaint. That the foreman regularly officiated as cross-bearer at the ritualistic church of St Terence, Trentchester (although pleaded in extenuation by its scandalised Vicar) seemed insufficiently explanatory of his vocabulary or of its unrestricted use in a country rectory. From this time forward there unhappily came about a distance and a coolness between Father Prodnose and Mr Tylethorpe. The next untoward incident was the infliction of corporal chastisement by the paperhanger on his 'holiday apprentice', as he described a very youthful assistant. This in due course brought to Tilchington on investigatory visits an inspector of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a minor official' of the Paperhangers' Union. All such events wasted time; but what irritated the Rector beyond endurance was Miss Pristin's attitude of obvious unconcern towards what might be going forward, or not going forward, in the room under repair. If only she would quote his predecessor's injunction to 'leave the room alone', in reference to the present hindrances, he had his retort—and a very waspish one—ready for her. But she gave him no opening whatever for conversation in the matter, and it became annoyingly clear to him that the effect of Mr Hempstede's words on her simple but strong mind had been to place the room outside her range of thought or observation. It just did not exist for her; and Mr Tylethorpe felt as though he could have tolerated anything more easily than such total disinterest. It was perhaps well for both rector and housekeeper that, in mid-September, the former left for ten days holiday in Scotland, and did not return until the last week of that month when the room had been finished and the workmen gone.
He had left behind him a plan showing the disposition of furniture in his new study, and he was, therefore, able to ensconce himself in it on the very evening of his arrival, as soon as he had taken supper. A roaring fire of Welsh coal provided pleasant contrast to the equinoctially blusterous night without. Its reflection on ceiling, bookcases, armchairs, large writing-table, curtains and pictures suffused a general sense of cosiness and comfort. Mr Tylethorpe was specially pleased with the two pictures, the framing of which had been his last order before leaving for Scotland. They were not his own, but belonged to the church, being the largest of a series of water-colour drawings by an artist member of the Southshire Archaeological Society that had been kept rolled up in the iron chest which protected the parish registers. The one above the fireplace was a reproduction—one thirtieth the size of the original—of the Doom fresco above the chancel arch; while that on the opposite wall was a full-size replica of the picture painted on the square window, already described, in the south aisle. As the firelight alternately flickered and faltered, the face of the nether figure in the latter started into life and, as quickly, relapsed into a flat gloom. Its beauty in the original had not been lost in the copying, but the water-colour artist had introduced into its expression the vestige of a smile; faint, it was true, but sufficient to negative (what the subject so essentially demanded) an appearance of utter defeat and despair in the vanquished. The figure of the archangel, on the other hand, retained all the stolidity of its prototype in the window; and, from where the Rector now viewed the picture, it appeared almost as though St Michael, in the repletion of victory, had allowed his eyes to close in sleep. Mr Tylethorpe felt much inclined to do likewise, for the grouse had been well hung and well cooked and his uncle's port better than any he had drunk on holiday. 'Bother you, Mike,' he apostrophised the angel, somewhat irreverently; 'it's your beastly festival that keeps me from enjoying my armchair: but I simply must finish my Michaelmas sermon.'
Refilling his pipe, he sat down at the writing-table to the notes which he had jotted down in the train. 'Why, to be sure,' he looked again towards the figures on the wall, 'I've dealt with only one side of the picture. I must fill in the other. For the next fifteen minutes his pen travelled over the paper rapidly and without pause: then, thrusting his notes into a drawer, he rose to have a look at his books. The older, calf-bound volumes of his uncle's collection made an odd miscellany: for instance, that set of Annual Registers, could there be anything still readable in them? He picked out one at random and sank sumptuously into an armchair. 'The Year's Poetick Review' looked promising, but the laureate flatulence of Pye quickly disgusted him. Here, however, was something more crisp and terse; and, by Jove, the very thing to round off the end of his sermon! He had read through the lines three times, admiring their relevance to the theme of his discourse, when the book slipped to the floor with a bang. What! Surely he had not fallen asleep? No: obviously not, because he had memorised the verses perfectly and would now write them down. He resumed his seat at the table for that purpose and soon had them on paper. But did the first line of the last verse begin, 'So sleep not' or 'So be not'? He had better verify. This should have been easy enough, for he had not yet replaced the volume in the bookcase. Three times he went through 'The Poetick Review', the third time page by page; but the verses eluded re-discovery. Never mind! He had noted them down with sufficient accuracy for a pulpit quotation, and it was now quite time for bed: no need to be meticulous.
He placed a guard against the grate, turned down the reading-lamp, and, carrying a candle, stayed at the door for a parting look at his new-found cosiness. The fire still glowed, and the room seemed loath for him to go. He quite envied the shadow cast by the fire-screen on the further armchair; it seemed so to enjoy the red leather upholstery. As a coal fell and flared, it appeared indeed to assume a momentary substantiality. 'Good night,' said the Rector. If he had thought of it, that was the first time he had ever bidden good night to a shadow. But he was not thinking: long railway journeys are so dreadfully tiring.
Nigel Tylethorpe, though no orator, was by no means a bad preacher. This was because he took trouble to think of what he was going to say and to give his thoughts a clear and concise expression. Mr Bugles as usual was representative of majority opinion among the congregation when he remarked 'as how parson's sermons be well cooked and served up right-like, neither too warm nor too cold.' Many of his listeners however felt the peroration of his Michaelmas homily to have an unpleasant temperature: the sort of heat in fact that gives a chill. Having in the earlier stages of this discourse dilated upon the celestial ministry of angels (their service in heaven, errands upon earth, and vigil over mankind), the Rector suddenly changed his tune to a minor key and gave to some of its chords a distinctly ugly modulation. Just as all good was impersonated in the Deity, so was all evil impersonated in the Devil. Analogous to the Former's army of angels were the black cohorts of the latter. People had become accustomed to a comfortable and one-sided belief in guardian angels, but when the average man spoke of his evil genius did he realise that he was naming a companion equally constant and quite as personal? It was necessary that all should face facts; especially elemental facts. To deny or ignore the emissaries of the Evil One was to provoke their attentions. With the eye of the spirit he felt that he could detect unbidden visitants among his congregation at that moment. They were about to sing hymn No. 335. Why the compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern had placed it among their selections 'For the Young' he did not know. Perhaps it was because the words presented only one side, of a picture whose other side Age, preferring to pretend blindness thereto itself, must logically hide from the eyes of Youth. Opportunely enough, continued the Rector, he had recently come across in an old book certain verses which would serve to supplement the hymn and enable them to conceive the angelic and demonic ministries in a comparative and correct perspective. He thereupon recited the lines which he had memorised from his reading of the Annual Register. They ran as follows:
Around the mouth of Hell a band
Of fearful fiends for ever stand;
Their bat-like bodies tense and stark,
And on their heads the Beast's foul mark.
These, should some Holy One draw near
With store of love to give us cheer,
All-spoiling Satan with quick shout
Bids intercept and thrust him out.
On ev'ry Seraph in the sky
Keeps watch below a demon spy:
Doth angel guard thee overhead?
Two devils lurk beneath thy bed!
So sleep not swordless, nor confide
Too much to them of Michael's side;
Lest, when the door of death is slammed,
Thou find thyself among the damned.
Mr Tylethorpe had read in novels of people undergoing the sensation of seeming to witness their own speech and behaviour from a detached and exterior angle. Such a strange psychological experience was his at this moment. In the concluding part of his sermon the feeling was unmistakable: he listened to himself with growing surprise and disapproval. He misliked the lines that he quoted and, now that the hymn was being played over, he realised with a shock that (although to appear in the Annual Register they must have been written more than a century ago) they sounded nevertheless like a Satanic parody of the more modern verses they were about to sing. Others perhaps felt similarly; for the choir seemed half-hearted and in the middle of the last verse the blower let all the wind out of the organ. It was altogether a dismal performance and, helping after service to count the collection in the vestry, Mr Bugles was not quite his natural self.
'Them was true words as you uttered just now, sir; and as Solomon said, there be nought nastier than truth.'
'But where did Solomon write that, Bugles?'
'I don't rightly know, sir, for I mind my grandfather's telling as how it were one of his unrecorded sayings. They were wonderful wise men, was Solomon and my grandfather.'
As he walked down the churchyard path on his way back to the Rectory Mr Tylethorpe noted that such of his flock as he overtook, responded to his 'good evening' with a more than usual deference. Or was it apprehension?
The self-surprise which his Michaelmas sermon awoke in the young Rector yielded before long to a growing interest in what had been its subject-matter. The fallen angels were seldom absent from his thoughts. Milton's Paradise Lost assumed a more goetic than poetic value for him, and he would sonorously declaim Tartarean passages from it in the pulpit.
There was only one conventicle of dissent in Tilchington, and this belonged to Mr Nehemiah Gattle, owner of a small market garden. It owned no allegiance or affiliation to any of the free churches, but had been started for the spiritual government of Mr Gattle by Mr Gattle for Mr Gattle. Nevertheless it had attracted the more or less regular attendance of twenty or so free-lance religionists who, now that 'Hell was preached proper at the church', deserted Mr Gattle for Mr Tylethorpe. In vain did the former expostulate that at 'The Unsectarian Mission Hall' he had always preached an honest Protestant devil, and that the Rector's demons were dirty Romish impostors whom Satan would scorn to recognise. The names of Samael and Asmodai fell like magic music on the bucolic ear and, as the Reverend Nigel's library on his new pet subject increased in quantity and diversity, a growing congregation would listen open-mouthed and enraptured to the legend of Lilith and other apocryphal narrations. A discourse on Isaiah xxxiv, 14, evoked an uneasy thrill; and another, upon the first six verses of Chapter ii of Job, was imaginative rather than exegetic. Even on Christmas Day the Rector focused his remarks on the astromancy of the Magi instead of on the sublime purpose of their journey: the sorcery of Simon Magus was somehow dragged into this untimely disquisition.
It was unfortunate for Mr Tylethorpe that there was no big house in Tilchington. The admonitions of a plain-speaking squire might have pulled him up at the brink whereon he now stood. As it was, the only person of any social position in the parish besides himself was a Mr Adrian Gribden, a letter from whom to an old college friend, written in January 1901, will throw light upon our story.
MY DEAR SMITH
I am so sorry you could not come for the New Year. There is little news to tell you, except that our worthy (?) incumbent intrigues me more and more. He is, believe me, surely and not slowly converting this countryside to a pseudo-mediaeval demonolatry. Those sermons I told you about in my last letter were in the nature of direct approaches to Manichaeism. Last Sunday he succeeded in being even more corruptive by prompting an undesirable reference to the Old Testament. You may remember that under a bequest of old Miss Hardham every seat in St Botolph's is provided with a copy of the Bible and Apocrypha. They are seldom opened, but there was an audible turning of leaves when Tylethorpe, preaching on the prodigal son, remarked that those of us who remembered the twenty-eighth chapter of the first book of Samuel, and especially the twenty-fourth verse, would realise that the return of the prodigal was not the only return associated in Holy Writ with a slaughter of the fatted calf. The result of this reference was of course that every one of his listeners, from old Bugles down to the newest joined choir-boy, was quickly reading how the witch of Endor brought up the shade of Samuel from the grave. This continual harping upon the sinister and occult cannot be good for anybody and, if I mistake not, Tylethorpe himself begins to show nervous strain. For instance, he keeps turning to look behind him in an unpleasantly odd and furtive fashion and has taken to preaching not from the front of the pulpit but with his back to the wall at its side; just as though he feared that somebody might look or lean over his shoulder. This attitude so impressed me on Sunday that I found myself half expecting to see him suddenly propelled forward by some invisible and unwelcome agency! But enough of this nonsense. Do try to get down for a week-end soon. They have put on a good afternoon train leaving town at 4.23, if you cannot manage the 12.57.
The concluding sentences of this letter represent Mr Tylethorpe in transition from the first stage of his soul's malady to the second; from the active and enjoyed pursuance of a morbid interest to a passive and involuntary obsession by it. Before, however, we pass to the second phase, let us take a peep into his study towards the close of the first. He has again taken from his bookcase a volume of the Annual Registers, and it has again dropped from his hands during a perusal of the 'Poetick Review'. Asleep? No, hardly; because, as on a former occasion, he has memorised the lines he was reading. Can he find the page again? Bother it, no. Anyhow, he can jot them down from memory, and he does so. No authorship was subscribed, and he will send them tomorrow to the 'literary inquiry column' of the Commentator for identification. Here are the lines:
Down the chasms of the night
Flashed a comet, purple-bright,
Prone upon whose lambent tail
Clung an angel deathly pale.
All the heaven cried for shame
When was read the angel's name,
The dear sad name of Zadyra.
Fairest of all angels he
Had gazed upon the crystal sea;
Saw his image mirrored there
And cried, 'I am than God more fair!'
Which hearing, Uriel
Flung him from sky to hell.
The coward moon
Sank seaward in a swoon:
But the brave sun,
Seeing what deed was done,
Rode forth to shine on other worlds afar,
To us becoming no more than a star,
Because of what was wrought on Zadyra.
Nor was the Earth unchanged:
Great shapes arose and ranged
Along the mountain sides; but no man saw
What these forms were: for there was light no more.
Neither the literary staff of the Commentator nor any of its readers proved able to trace the authorship of these lines, nor even to elucidate the name Zadyra.
The second, some might call it the hallucinative, stage of Mr Tylethorpe's decline started with his suspicion, which rapidly ripened into conviction, that he was not in sole occupancy of his new study. A succession of dreams, each of which came to him while resting in one of the big armchairs, left him in no doubt as to who was sharing it. So vivid was the first dream that he would have mistaken it for reality but for two things. The first was that, though he was seated facing the fire, his view of the room was as though he were standing with his back to it. The second was that the furniture had become entirely different from that which he had so recently chosen and installed. In his dream the window was closely shuttered but not curtained, and the floor was uncarpeted. Under the far wall was a long and deep chest, the size and shape of a church altar. On the door side of the room were two cases of shelves, the one filled with books and manuscripts and the other with what looked like laboratory equipment. At a large and untidy writing table in the bow window sat a black-habited figure, engaged apparently in limning some design on a pane of glass. Against one of the table legs leant a nine-light wooden window frame, whose shape and dimensions Mr Tylethorpe at once recognised as those of the window in the south aisle of St Botolph's. On the table in front of the artist was propped a looking-glass into which he appeared to keep peering, and at his side lay a sketch in charcoal of an angel. As the dreamer surveyed this scene its central figure turned slowly from the table and looked him full in the face.
The features were both beautiful and familiar. They were in fact those of Lucifer in the church window. 'So that was Phayne's self-portrait, was it?' ejaculated the Rector aloud, and thereby woke himself from the dream. Thenceforward, however, he lived in two rooms instead of one and, in both the dream room and the real, Nicolas Phayne lived with him. He thought and thought upon this sinister predecessor of his. Had anybody ever before so identified himself with the Evil One as to impersonate him in a self-portrait? It seemed a dangerously wicked thing to have done, and still more wicked was it to have perpetuated this impersonation in the window of a consecrated building confided to his charge. These and similar reflections probably caused the dream to repeat itself; for repeat itself it did, three or four times, and except in one small particular without variation. This one little change consisted in an appearance behind Phayne's back of visible disquiet in the air. It reminded the Rector of that peculiar crinkling of a view seen through waves of intense heat. He remembered in particular having once looked up at the sky above the open flue of a brick-kiln and seeing just such a rippling or disquiet interposed between him and the clouds. The only distinction was that the focus of disquiet behind Phayne was not amorphous but took roughly the shape of a figure, though without differentiation of limbs and parts. The last time that this dream was repeated Phayne, or rather the appearance of him, seemed for the first time to be conscious of something astir behind him. At first he made motions with his hands as though to brush away a gnat or moth, but finally he jerked round suddenly and saw. Mr Tylethorpe will never erase from his memory the horrible look that he then beheld. Surprise and fear were in it; but triumph also and never a trace of shame or remorse. After all, an offer had been made and accepted.
Mr Gribden's letter, reproduced some pages back, indicated the effect upon the Rector of this new factor in his dream. He began, in fact, to look for and to expect appearances of visible disquiet in the atmosphere of his own daily environment; and very soon imagination began to usurp the place of sensory observation. Miss Pristin quickly saw that something was going seriously wrong with her young master. First there was that senseless fuss that he made over a flaw in the glass of the garden door. If one looks through such a flaw naturally there must appear whorls or twists in the view seen through it; so where was the cause for him to break the window with his walking stick? Then came his sudden aversion to the pattern of the linoleum in the back passage. If he disliked a crinkly design, why had he himself chosen it barely five months ago? Well: she would have it rolled up and stored in the box room. Next occurred his complaints regarding the transparent shapes drawn by a night's frost on his bedroom window. Nothing could be done about those of course, except to keep the blinds drawn until they thawed out. Last and strangest whim of all, he forbade her ever again to wear on her bonnet her favourite big bow of black watered silk because (how could an educated man talk such nonsense?) 'it all went alive and crinkly when she moved.' This command Miss Pristin thought it wise to obey, but with the muttered reservation that she didn't hold with none such nasty fancies herself and hoped that somebody as she knew weren't forgetting to say his prayers regular.
'Forgetting?' Mr Tylethorpe rejoined, 'There is no forgetting for me, Miss Pristin, no forgetting at all!'
The second dream that came to the Rector was not so distinct as the first; not because its verisimilitude was any the less, but because the scene presented was nocturnal and unilluminated except by a full moon shining through bare branches. At a block in front of a tree-trunk stood Nicolas Phayne with what looked like a black fowl fluttering in his left hand. With a downward sweep of his right arm there fell on the struggling animal an axe or other metal implement that glinted in the moonlight. A moment later he appeared to be dismembering the victim, and then to be doing something to it with water and a dull fire. So Phayne had sunk to this! Mr Tylethorpe's recent readings had taught him enough of goetic ritual for him to realise that he had visionally witnessed a preparation of Admixtures for the Evil Sacrifice. He dreaded, and yet yearned with a hideous impatience, to witness its consummation. This impatience waxed to a madness when, after the fashion of its predecessor, the immediate dream repeated itself a second and a third time. Nor was this psychological state without its inevitable effect: it prevented the sleep that would enable the coming of a final dream to resolve the horrid yearning in experience.
With the onset of this insomnia the worsening of the Rector's condition could no longer be hid from his parishioners. For several Sundays past he had been reduced to reading a distinguished ecclesiastical dignitary's printed sermons, and Mr Gattle's errant sheep had promptly returned to the 'unsectarian' fold. The Rector's reading of the liturgy had also become lifeless and perfunctory. 'If t'poor parson,' said Mr Bugles, 'might be spoke of same as it might be one of my span'el pups, 'ud say as how he were sickening for distemper and p'raps 'll get through and may be not.' Mr Gribden took a less charitable view and gave up going to church. At this juncture, also, the rectory servants decided to give notice but, fearing to face the master in his present mood and failing to obtain the mediation of Miss Pristin, they postponed any action on their resolve.
Whether Dr Marlock was professionally correct in coming to see the Rector on the summons of his housekeeper may be doubted, but that medical attention had become urgently necessary was obvious to everybody. The visit was not in itself a success, because the patient locked himself in his room and refused to see him. This, however, did not prevent Dr Marlock from leaving with Miss Pristin a small phial whose contents she undertook to pour into the after-dinner cup of coffee which Mr Tylethorpe, in spite of insomnia, still insisted on taking. It was indeed this surreptitious potion that induced sufficient sleep for the dreaming of his last dream.
Mr Tylethorpe had for some time given up trying to court sleep in his bed: having taken off his clothes and put on pyjamas and a dressing-gown he would return downstairs and settle himself down in an armchair before his study fire. The chair that he now chose was the one associated with his dreaming. On previous nights it had not been long before he was out of it again and pacing the room in an agony of sleeplessness. Tonight, however, thanks to the draught, he was sleeping soundly when Miss Pristin, who had taken upon herself a night's vigil at the doctor's request, looked in at half-past ten and again at eleven. The dream that now came to him was none the less terrible for being anticipated. The room appeared once more as in the first dream. Phayne, robed in a black preaching gown, stood before the altar-like chest, on which stood an array of sacred vessels (pyx, flagon, paten and chalice) and by their side a box and a bottle which the dreamer recognised as those seen in his previous dream. The postures and gestures of the figure before the chest made plain that a shameful travesty of Christianity's supreme rite was being enacted. Most of the figure's manipulations were mercifully half-hidden by the sleeves of the black gown, but suddenly the head tilted back and the upturned chalice showed for an instant in a foul climax of sacrilege. For long minutes thereafter the figure continued to stand in erect rigidity, but with successive tremors suggestive of extreme emotion or, it might be, physical pain. Then all at once the knees sagged, the body lunged, and there lay on the floor a black and motionless heap. The Rector started and awoke. The slight bleeding from his mouth was caused by his having bitten his lower lip.
The narration of this series of dreams will have taxed to breaking point the reader's capacity to bear with the obscene and macabre. Nevertheless there remains, and must be told, their immediate and still worse sequel. Madmen, as distinct from mental defectives, have been said to fall into three categories: those who think senselessly from senseless premises, those who think sensibly from senseless premises and those who think senselessly from sensible premises. The man who now shuddered in his night attire on his armchair belonged to the middle category. His ratiocination was quick, clear and concise; its basis in religion, philosophy and ethics was temporarily destroyed; it was rooted only in his present terror. He would never forget those dreams, even if they should not repeat themselves, which experience had taught him that they would. He could never rid himself of a consciousness of ghastly communion with the predecessor who had desecrated his priesthood in this room a century ago. Even if he should leave Tilchington, the spirit of Phayne, he felt certain, would accompany him, for were they not now fellow initiates in the Evil Mysteries? He could certainly no longer continue in his Ministry, and when the reason for his abandoning it became known he would be shunned by all as insane or unclean. In short, life would not be livable; and a burden that cannot be borne must be laid down. He had heard suicides dubbed cowards by some and appraised as brave by others: but why prate of cowardice or bravery? It was just a natural process that a man should take his life when he can no longer live it. The necessary act would be short and simple. This dressing-gown cord was both strong and smooth; there was no fear of the noose that he had just made in it not pulling tight or of its breaking. Yes: he could just reach the curtain rod across the bow window by standing on the writing table, and the other end of the dressing-gown cord was soon made fast to it. Now the table must be pushed away, and a chair substituted: for he would never manage to kick from under him a heavy table. What an ugly scrooping sound its castors made! But not loud enough, luckily, to wake the servants. Here was a chair of just the right height. There now! All was ship-shape and ready.
Miss Pristin also observed that all was ready. Attracted by the scrooping of the table she had entered noiselessly and now stood behind Mr Tylethorpe. Her next action she has never explained, for she has never told it to anybody. Neither to Mr Tylethorpe nor to herself did an explanation seem necessary. It was an effect probably of the strain under which she had mustered resolve to enter the, to her, un-enterable room and of angry disgust at the scene on which she had intruded. Be this as it may, in a burst of violence and with all the strength at her command she first boxed the Rector's ears and then, as he turned in his astonishment, slapped his face. Worn to extreme weakness by insomnia and mental misery the wretched man passively dissolved in a flood of tears and, powerless to resist her seizure of his left forearm, allowed himself to be meekly led by her to his bedroom. There she locked him in and, having returned to the study, untied the dressing-gown cord from the curtain-rod and unknotted it. This was something which Dr Marlock need not see. Early next morning the physician found the patient still sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. In three days time he was strong enough to be taken by Dr Marlock and Miss Pristin in the midday train to Funtingham-on-Sea, where they left him in an efficient but not too fashionable Nursing Home.
Cyril Thundersley, by Divine Permission Bishop of Wintonbury, was entertaining a house-party at the Palace. No misogynist, but himself unmarried, he preferred male company and was ever a little apprehensive of lady guests. His present company at breakfast was such as he thoroughly enjoyed. There was old Dean Burnfell from Penchester who, still young at eighty, had more than half a century before been a minor canon at Wintonbury and had kept up his connections with the place ever since. On the host's other side sat the Colonial Bishop of Kongea, home on leave from his tropical see. Not yet forty, he still bustled and hustled with the momentum of youth. Next to him, and the only layman of the party, was Leslie Trueson, Fellow of St Peter's, Oxbridge, who was pursuing some historical researches in the palace library. The fifth person at the table was Mr Lemmet, the Bishop of Wintonbury's chaplain. Quiet and untalkative but invariably attentive, he had been well chosen for his present position.
'Until yesterday,' remarked the Bishop of Wintonbury, 'I imagined myself to be living in the twentieth century.'
'You should never, my dear Cyril,' rejoined Dean Burnfell, 'pay too much attention to the almanacks. My life is nearing its close and it has been lived in many centuries. A man belongs to all the ages to which he is heir. I have found Plato more of a contemporary in many ways than most moderns. It is only births and deaths, not lives, that can be dated in Time's Register. Wordsworth, indeed, surmised that we come into the world trailing clouds of glory from an Ever Has Been. I don't know about that: but our religion assures us that we are destined for an Ever After and that we are in communion with departed saints.'
'Quite so.' Here the Bishop helped himself to a second sausage. 'If it were a matter of communion with saints only, I should not have made my last remark. My reason for it was that, until faced yesterday by the fact, I would never have believed that a young priest of good family and excellent education, an athlete too, and a thoroughly manly fellow, whom I had specially selected for the best country living in the Diocesan gift, would have shamelessly taken to preaching sheer diabolism from his pulpit, and have ended by himself becoming demoniacally possessed; for such is my interpretation of the so-called breakdown that has necessitated his removal to a home for neurotics. It sounds like seventeenth or at latest eighteenth century history to me!'
'Yes,' agreed Mr Trueson, 'it is certainly reminiscent of the Tilchington Trouble, as it was called, a hundred years or more ago.'
'What's that you say?'
'My dear Bishop, please don't look so startled! There is a manuscript account of the matter in your library. It was a perfectly straightforward case of what you have termed diabolism and it ended in the Rector's death.'
The man who has been received into a home for neurotics,' said the Bishop impressively, 'is none other than the present incumbent of Tilchington: young Tylethorpe.'
'The deuce it is! Poor fellow, he may have found in his country cure something more than he bargained for. Lemmet, I wonder if you would be so good as to go across to the library, look up the index of manuscripts under T, and bring His Lordship the paper docketed "Tilchington Trouble". If I remember right it's in one of the shelves under the oriel window.'
No one spoke until Lemmet returned. Sausages are better enjoyed and more expeditiously consumed in silence. It was not, however, more than five minutes before the manuscript had been found and produced.
'You read it to us, Trueson,' the Bishop requested, 'as you are familiar with it.'
'Certainly; I'll do my best, but it's a trifle illegible in parts. The docket bears a note over the initials P.V.R. (that would have been Bishop Ranwell) that he had found his perusal of the file so unedifying and distasteful that he had destroyed all its contents except this one paper which, in his opinion, contained all that was necessary to leave on record in the matter.'
'I remember Ranwell,' interpolated the Dean, 'as a kind and gentle old man. He once bought up all the Jacks-in-the-Box in a toy shop here, because as a small boy he had been frightened by one!'
'Ah! did he so?' resumed Trueson. 'That's what he may have intended to do in the present connection, if one may judge from what I shall now read to you. It is a letter dated the 3rd February, 1801, written by Archdeacon Howgall from his vicarage at Jedworth to Bishop Cumberley who, according to the panel in the Chapter House, was enthroned in 1794 and died in this palace in 1805. It was he who built the big block of stables and the extension to the palace wine-cellars. Now for the letter.
MY LORD BISHOP
The, I will not say lamented, death of Mr Phayne has relieved me of the pain and duty of adding to previous reports upon his malpractice and Your Lordship from the trouble and expense of processes necessary to his proposed deprivation.
In the final carriage of this matter I have obeyed throughout Your Lordship's ordinance for the avoidance of all scandal; whereto I have been mightily assisted by the phlegm and incuriosity of the local physician, Dr Lammerton. From the fact that all three Rectory servants were laid in bed with a sudden sharp colic after a meal of field puddocks picked in mistaking for mushrooms, whereof the dead man had also partaken, this learned doctor ascribed his death to none other cause and set his hand thereto in writing. The death chamber, as well as the body therein, were in fact unlooked upon until my arrival; but this not of intent or by discretion but by reason of general fear that there might be with the corpse such as were with him, as sundry assert, when alive.
On entering this room I locked the door behind me and half-closed the shutters against the window, so that I could see sufficiently within nor be seen from without. I will not distress Your Lordship with a tale of all that I there found, but will state enough to show that the cause of our true religion hath suffered nought by this death save an extreme good riddance. That here had been, to say least, a mockery of the Sacrament was plain shewn by paten and cup set out upon a table-chest. Each of which contained a separate stuff; the ingredients whereof appeared from an open handwritten book beside them. The prescriptions were of a rank poisonous sort and were without doubt the certain cause of death. Whether this Phayne was by law felo de se or no the physician has happily left us in no need to determine; and indeed I doubt it, for the name of the evil rite in his book was such as may have had him think that damnation of soul would have fetch't him immunity of body from poisons and such like harms. This with other ten or eleven books of like blasphemy and mischief I did make a fire of in the grate, and when the whole had waxed hot and consuming did pour thereon the substances from the sacred vessels. These latter, having found them to be not those used in the church but the property of the dead man, I placed with him in the coffin. For as none in Tilchington would so much as touch the body it fell to me to compose it therein, which I did without removal of any of the habiliments wherein I had found it. The carriage of the coffin to the churchyard was done in a garden barrow, as none would bear him on their shoulders, and the grave had been dug in a portion that was unconsecrate. None would attend the burying; but the Sexton, his two grown sons and myself did lower the coffin without breaking thereof, although it slipped from the forward ropes and fell end on. The help of these good men was on condition that I will say no prayers, nor did I so but to offer thanksgiving to Almighty God for deliverance of this parish from Satan's curse.
In regard to the points of my second and third letters, I caused the ash tree and that which was below to be hewn down and burned, as also the ivy bush and grotto. I also loosed such animals as remained. Conscience bids me dissent, but with humble deference, from Your Lordship's view that exorcisation is but a Romish vanity or superstition. Nevertheless in obedience to Your Lordship's wishes I abstained from all motions there towards.
I have noted also Your Lordship's judgment that if only parsons would do more fox-hunting and less book-reading this see of Wintonbury would be in happier case. May I respectfully suggest that exhortations to this end would be more convincingly included in an episcopal charge than in archidiaconal admonitions?
Believe me to remain, My Lord Bishop,
Your most dutiful & obedient Servant,
'So you see, Bishop,' added Mr Trueson, 'that what has been worrying you is only the latest chapter in a serial story, "The Tilchington Trouble".'
'It was a most reprehensible omission that should be remedied without delay,' said the Bishop of Kongea.
The omission to exorcise. We never dare run risks of that sort in Kongea. My sanctioned appendix to the Book of Common Prayer translated into Kongahili contains three occasional offices for the exorcisation of evil spirits. The first, relevant apparently to the rectory at Tilchington, is for their expulsion from buildings or places; the second for their ejection from infants and children; and the third for their removal from persons of riper years. All three Forms are in frequent use and of proved efficacy. We wouldn't be without them for anything. Even the fauna of Kongea teaches us to appreciate the Petrine warning that our adversary the Devil walketh about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.'
The Bishop of Wintonbury walked to the window and for some minutes appeared wrapt in contemplation of a revolving cowl on one of his spare-room chimneys. He at length turned and addressed the Bishop of Kongea.
'You told me yesterday, Christopher, that you meant to spend a day in visiting Halmeston and Tilchington churches. I suppose from what you have just said that if you found yourself passing Tilchington Rectory you would feel it a moral obligation, even in the Rector's absence, to step inside and recite the office of which you have spoken?'
'I should certainly do so unless positively prevented. I have no English translation; but, as I would be alone, its recital in Kongahili would be all right.'
The Bishop of Wintonbury looked, as indeed he was, relieved. He did not wish to grant sanction as Diocesan to a ceremony that to his modern mind savoured of superstition. At the same time there were passages of scripture that could be quoted in justification of it, and many of the See's High Churchmen would certainly approve. Moreover, his personal scepticism in such matters had been severely strained that morning. He would not, therefore, expressly authorise the performance of the rite but, as his friend was minded to do it, he would not prevent it.
'Lemmet,' he said, 'I suggest you take a holiday from me tomorrow and accompany the Bishop of Kongea in the ten-thirty train to Tilchington. If you both carry sandwiches you can walk from there to Halmeston and lunch on the common. That is to say, Christopher, if weather permits. It's no use doing such expeditions in the wet.'
That night the wind rose to almost gale force and by morning had blown away the clouds and rain. The Bishop of Kongea and Mr Lemmet therefore set forth with the prospect of a bright if gusty day before them. All went according to plan for them except that Miss Pristin attended the service of exorcisation and, unable to follow the. Kongahili language, interspersed the rite at what appeared to her appropriate intervals with fervently ejaculated Amens. She had previously removed from their frames and now burnt in the kitchen fire, with full support from the Colonial Bishop, the two pictures that had hung on the walls. She also, after departure of the visitors and as her own particular contribution to a purification of the chamber, lit therein a sulphur candle of the sort used for medical disinfection.
The Bishop of Kongea was much interested in St Botolph's but one disappointment awaited him. The South aisle window, which was not protected by any wire grid on the outside, had been irreparably smashed that very morning, apparently only a few minutes before their entry into the church, by a small branch that had been snapped off one of the churchyard elms and hurled by the gale against the Western wall.
'I have always found exorcisation a very powerful rite!' the Colonial Bishop assured Mr Lemmet as they surveyed the debris.
A comfortable conclusion to this history would have been that Nigel Tylethorpe after a full recovery returned to Tilchington and lived there happily ever afterward. That, however, was impossible. Even if his health had permitted a return, his amour pro pre would have forbidden it. But in point of fact his condition, both physical and mental, remained critical for more than a year: and then, on medical advice, he sailed on a world tour which occupied a further eighteen months. He had submitted his resignation of the incumbency to the Bishop within a fortnight of his first admission to the nursing home.
His successor, the Reverend Nathaniel Coltswood, brought with him to Tilchington a wife and seven children. He soon, of course, heard rumours about the room, but he made light of them. 'We have made it the nursery,' he declared, 'and if Old Nick is minded to make off with a couple or so of the brats he's welcome to them. He can take his pick.' In actual fact there has been no unrest or discomfort associated with the apartment since his induction.
The Reverend Sir Nigel Tylethorpe, Bart (for thus he returned from his long cruise owing to the unexpected death of Sir Sylvester, his first cousin) soon settled down in the old family seat of Battlewick Hall. On Sundays he assists the Vicar of Cubley-cum-Battlewick by reading Service at the small church within his park gates. He is still unmarried, but house parties at the Hall invariably declare his establishment to be the best managed in Westshire. The name of his housekeeper is, as you may have guessed, Roberta Pristin.
Although to know Adrian Frent was not necessarily to like him, he interested me from the very first. If his life contained much of the ordinary, the manner of his death was very far out of it; the biographical portion of these notes is therefore by way of preface to the mystery of his end.
I had lived at Brensham for two years before the Garden City Company showed any intention of extending Ruskin Road. So long as it remained a cul-de-sac the peace of my bachelor homestead would remain undisturbed, for beyond it lay only a wilderness of weed and bramble between the road's end and the Bren river. I watched therefore with misgiving a gradual clearing by the Company's roadmen of this barren strip and the construction by them of a gravel track down its centre. But I need not have worried, for a bridging of the Bren on a purely residential thoroughfare was quite beyond the Company's financial resources, and the sole purpose of the extension was to afford access to a vacant building lot on the side opposite to me and nearer to the river. On this quickly arose 'Brenside' and into it as first tenant moved Adrian Frent.
My first glimpse of him was during a reconnaissance made by me along the river bank for that very purpose. What would be the looks of a man whom I might have to live next to for long years naturally aroused my curiosity. Nor was my first impression unfavourable. I saw a man of nearly six feet, clean-shaven, oval-faced, dark-haired, well-knit and smartly tailored. Without hesitation I made up my mind to call as soon as he was comfortably settled in.
I did so some ten days later and found him very pleased to be doing host in his new house. Brenside had been wisely planned to provide one really large room, on the window side of which stood an Erard grand piano on glass castors. In front lay a large Persian rug, on whose beautiful and expensive expanse none of the surrounding leathered chairs were allowed to impinge. The pictures on the walls were all of religious subjects, though not pertaining to the same religion. They included a coloured print of the Sistine Madonna, a silver-point drawing of the Hermes of Praxiteles, a rather wishy-washy sketch in water colour of the Buddha, and an enlarged photograph of Hindu frescoes in the Ajanta Caves. There were two large bookcases, one containing books whose titles I could not see from the chair into which Frent beckoned me, and the other largely filled by bound volumes of the Railway Magazine. Immediately above them was a scale model of a locomotive protected by an oblong glass frame.
This miniature engine and the magazines offended my aesthetic sensibility by their incongruity with the other furnishings, and made me curious to ascertain the nature of the books in the other case. Finding excuse in a draught from the window I soon transferred myself to a nearer seat whence my eye fell on a representative and well-bound collection of English classics, both in prose and poetry. The only exceptions were gathered on a shelf to themselves and might be categorised under the title borne by the largest of them, which was Herbs, Simples, Drugs and Poisons.
Frent caught my inquisitive glance. 'One of my many hobbies,' he explained. 'I grow them, you know. That's why I've chosen a place by the river. I lost a lot of valuable stuff last year at Tenford during the August drought. I'm going to make the garden here a herbalist's paradise; you must drop in occasionally and see how it's getting on. I've got my eye on the small greenhouse as a future laboratory. I not only grow the plants but I make them into medicines. I always make my own insecticides and the vermifuges for my dogs. They're in the kennel now, under treatment; come along and see them.' Leading me out by a side door he introduced me to two liver-coloured dachshunds in one of the outhouses. They were almost offensively affectionate, after the nature of their breed. 'I adore dogs,' he said. I was glad that he did not see me wince, but I hate men to use the word 'adore': it is woman's property.
Business men on their daily trek from Brensham to the City have a choice of three trains. The 8.47 runs you through to Cripplegate and is uncomfortably crowded. The 8.59 has a slightly superior clientèle but lands you at St Euston's Cross, midway between east and west, whence it is necessary to proceed by Underground. The 9.15, similarly bound, is patronised only by such as are in positions to determine for themselves their times of arrival and departure. It was in this third train that I met Frent next morning, and thereby placed him in the category of employer rather than of employee. Nor was my inference at fault, as I learned from his conversation on the way up. He was a partner in the firm of Frent, Frent & Saxon Limited, Music Publishers of 2 3 Great Penchester Street. His father, who had died last year, had left him in joint managership with Paul Saxon; whom indeed I remembered, somewhat indistinctly, as a fellow member of the Junior Camisis before its absorption by the older University Clubs.
It did not take me long, listening to Frent's talk, to realise that here was a case of a business house being very much divided against itself. To put the matter in a nutshell, Adrian was musically a severe classicist while Saxon was crazy on jazz. Each had, I gathered, in his own line brought grist to the common mill. Frent had at the unlimited expense of an aunt of the composer, who contributed also a frontispiece, published in album form Julian Grinley's 'Twelve Dream Pieces for Pianoforte'. Saxon undoubtedly struck a good bargain when he acquired publishing rights over a Jazz series which included such astonishing 'hits' as 'Gioconda' and 'Bendigo'. The pity of it was that each, while sharing in it, grudged the other his success.
Daily travelling in the same compartment Frent and I soon found ourselves on terms of acquaintance that bordered on intimacy. This was because I was glad to find him interesting and he glad to find someone whom he interested. I derived entertainment even from his knowledge of locomotives and running schedules and, acquiring the jargon of the initiate, was soon speaking of the permanent way as 'the road' and of signals being 'on' or 'off instead of up and down. His tales of railway history especially appealed to me, and (after he had pointed out the gas works siding which leaves the main line just north of Ponsden Priory as being all that now remains of an aborted London, Middlehampton and East Coast Railway) I often found my eyes straying from my evening paper, as we jerked over the junction points, towards the heavy gates that closed the siding against the main line of which it had been intended to form a most important branch. In moments of despondency the tale of this siding would appear to me as an allegory of what had happened to so many pet projects of my own scheming!
I forget the exact date of Frent's coming to Brenside, but it was at the beginning of March. On the 17th April poor old Miss Lurgashall of Rosedene, Hesseltine Road, was trapped in her bedroom and burned to death when the house took fire from defects in the electrical insulation. Rosedene and Brenside had been designed by the same architect and in both plans the front and back stairs occupied respectively the fore and rear of the middle section of the building. This arrangement, comparing it to a central flue, the coroner described as a death-trap. A criticism so characteristic of a Coroner's obiter dicta naturally passed unheeded by hundreds of people whose houses were on a similar plan: but not by Adrian Frent.
'What are you going to do about your stairs?' he asked me.
'Nothing,' I replied, 'and you?'
'I'm having a fire escape put in from the box room next to my bedroom.'
'That'll cost you something!'
'Oh! not much. All one needs is a trap-door and a length of rope. We used to have several of them at my prep. school. In case of emergency one lifts the trap, throws down the rope and swarms down it hand over hand. Cheap and easy! I'm a bit of a carpenter, as you know, and I cut the trap-door yesterday. Now all that remains to do is to get a rope.'
'You'll need a staple to fix it to,' I pointed out; 'and that means a hole through the wall and a plate.'
'Oh! I know of an odd job man who'll fix that up for me in no time and at very small charge. I strongly advise you to follow my example.'
I have recorded the above conversation for the reason (as well as for another which will appear later) that it well illustrates a basic defect in Frent's character. He was always starting things without consideration of their full implications and dropping them when he ran up against difficulties. In the present instance the example which he bade me follow was never set, for neither staple nor rope eventuated. He just forgot about them. It was the same story with his piano playing: he had excellent taste and touch, but I have seldom known him to play a piece right through. As soon as he came to a tricky passage he would break off with a 'sorry, I'm out of practice!' I suspected, however, that he had never been in practice, for he hated drudgery and all his activities lacked perseverance and system. Take, for instance, the death of his dachshunds, the cause of which he never revealed to me. The Vet., however, did. They had been poisoned by draughts out of a wrong bottle! How a man who prided himself on concocting his own insecticides and vermifuges could have been so careless passed my comprehension. Nor did the loss of these pets cause him any observable sorrow. I sometimes wondered in fact whether he did not derive a greater pleasure from the artistic little headstones that he had placed over their graves than any that the dogs ever afforded him while alive.
As these sentences flow from my pen I am conscious that they become increasingly critical of Adrian Frent. This is not from any desire on my part to play the role of dissecting moralist, but because my portrait of the man cannot be rendered faithful or lifelike without painting in the shadows. He certainly suffered no qualms himself about personal criticisms, for his daily conversations with me became more and more charged with venom against 'the Klaxon' as he now insisted on calling his partner. His outbursts would indeed have been wearisome but for the many amusing turns of phrase and fancy with which he embellished them. Nevertheless, my conscience would sometimes accuse me of abetting slander; and by way of appeasing it I argued to myself that, by allowing Frent to blow off steam, I was preventing the accrual to his animosity of any explosive quality that might be generated by enforced repression.
As the summer wore on we dropped in frequently at each other's houses, and I was privileged to see the burgeoning of the Herbalist's Paradise. These were his words, not mine; for a meaner collection of disreputable weeds could be hardly imagined: The only lasting memory of my inspection of it is of his telling me that what I still continue to call 'Deadly Nightshade' is neither Nightshade nor deadly. The so-called laboratory in the little greenhouse was equally unimpressive; indeed it reminded me of nothing so much as the pitiful messes that children will make out of leaves and berries to serve as 'pretence food' in their toy dinner services. I could not but remember the sad end of those two dachshunds and found myself viewing the disarray of bottles, tins and saucers with mounting distaste. Frent perhaps discerned these thoughts. 'Come along indoors,' he said, 'and I will play you the March Funèbre out of that Beethoven Sonata.' The movement contains no really difficult passages and he did it justice. It little occurred to me that it was the last thing that I should hear him play.
September the fourteenth is my birthday, and I am able to set that date with certainty against the events that follow. I had lunched at his club with my brother Gerald and, taking the afternoon off, made to catch the three-thirty at St Euston's Cross. I had hardly settled down in a corner seat before, to my surprise, in got Frent. I had never known him take so early a train before, and the fuss that he was in made me ask the reason.
'I'm through for good with Saxon,' he explained, 'and we shall have to dissolve partnership. I just hate him and all his works; and he knows it and trades on it. All our publications are now on his side of the show. I simply have to agree to everything he demands in order to get him out of my room. He knows how I loathe whistling and humming, but he hums or whistles his filthy jazz the whole working day, blast him! He rubs it in too about my daily bread being buttered with croon and swing. That "Lulu on the Lilo" tune is the rottenest stuff the house has ever published; and yet it's netted us some three hundred quid already. Tainted money I call it!'
At this point Frent thumped his despatch case into the luggage rack, and stood over me while he continued: 'and now this morning he comes and leans over my desk, breathing his beastly 'flu into my very nostrils. He knows well enough how prone I am to colds and how careful I have to be to avoid infection. And then to cap it all, he asks me to lend him my quack sniffle cure, as he thinks it funny to call it: Well, he asked for it and he's got it: I hope it chokes him!'
'As your worm mixture did the dachshunds,' I laughingly interposed.
Frent slowly sat down and scowled at me. It was the first time that I had made him angry. 'Can't you let me forget those damned dogs?' he snapped; and then added self-pityingly, 'what I need is a rest and a change of scene. Saxon's put all my nerves on edge.'
As the train glided out of the gloom of the roofed terminus into unimpeded daylight I was shocked to see Frent's face. It was lined, drawn and grey: an ugly yellow-grey. The man was patently unwell.
'I'm sorry, old man,' I said sympathetically. 'If I were you I would take a long week-end and run down to the seaside.'
'That's a good idea,' he muttered, and for the next quarter of an hour made a show of reading the evening paper, though his attention appeared far from concentrated on it.
The rolling-stock used on the three-thirty consists chiefly of old six-wheelers, and progress became bumpy as we gained speed. After rattling through Ponsden Priory station the carriage gave a bigger jolt than usual over the siding junction and something fell tinkling on to the floor. Frent's pince-nez, always precariously perched, had been jerked off his nose and I waited for him to pick them up. He remained however stock still with fingers outspread on his knees, staring down at the paper which had fallen over his feet. He looked so dazed and helpless that stooping forward myself I picked up the pince-nez and handed them up to him. After regarding them curiously for a few moments he lifted his eyes questioningly to mine and said, 'Thank you, sir: but are you sure they're mine'
'They were on your nose a moment ago!'
'Ah! Were they? I had forgotten. You must excuse me, but everything seems suddenly to have gone out of my head. It's quite extraordinary. For instance, your face seems familiar to me and I feel sure that we must have met each other before: but at the moment I've entirely forgotten your name. I'm so sorry.'
Not only Frent's face but the impersonal note in his voice, as though he were repeating a lesson, startled and distressed me. I felt relieved somehow that there was no third person in the compartment to overhear his conversation. He was undoubtedly seized by some sudden illness and consequent abnormality, and it must devolve on me to get him home to Brenside safely and without incident. It is strange how in emergency one sometimes finds the policeman element in one's character taking charge and directing operations. It was so now; for I heard myself addressing Frent in a calm and custodial manner that surprised me.
'My name is Johnson and yours is Frent,' I said. 'We live next to each other in Ruskin Road, Brensham, which is the next stop. You have been working too hard and worrying too much, and as a result your brain has gone temporarily on strike. But don't you bother about that. Go on reading your paper' (I picked it up for him) 'and when we reach Brensham I'll see you home and call in the doctor. He'll soon put you right again.'
Frent received my remarks with a passive and childlike acceptance and, save that I experienced an uncomfortable sensation of walking with a somnambulist, we reached Brenside without trouble. Having explained to the parlourmaid that her master had been taken ill I got him to lie down on a sofa and rang up Dr Jameson.
The latter was round within five minutes, and having looked at Frent and taken his pulse, he peremptorily and monosyllabically enjoined 'bed'. A telephone enquiry of the Brensham District Nursing Guild elicited that Nurse Margison was immediately available, and in less than half an hour she had Frent and Brenside in her charge.
'Let's drop in at your place, and I'll prescribe for you too,' said Jameson as we walked away. 'You must have had an anxious time getting that fellow home.'
He joined with me in taking his own prescription: it was 'a stiff one'.
Frent lay in bed five days before recovery. He was described by Miss Margison as an ideal patient; which meant that he slept most of the time, asked no questions and did whatever she told him.
It was on the second or third day that I read in my morning paper of Paul Saxon's death from influenza. The attack, a severe one, had been aggravated by acute gastric complications and had terminated, fatally, in pneumonia. Frent's fulminations against his partner had led me to envisage a Philistine of the Philistines. I was surprised therefore to read in the obituary notice of a distinguished academic career and of his identity with Publics' in the Bi-monthly Review, whose articles on art and literature I always enjoyed and admired.
I was permitted to visit Frent at the very outset of his recovery. His first request was indeed that he might see me. Considering that he might be said to have lost his self for several days I found him almost incongruously self-possessed. Before him lay a letter from Lyster, his Company's manager, reporting the circumstances of Saxon's death.
'How extremely annoying of him,' Frent complained, 'to die just when the doctor orders me a holiday. I simply must clear up the mess he will have left and it will take several weeks. All the same I shall have to run down to Benceston for a few days before long.'
'Benceston?' I queried.
Frent's face suddenly showed again (it may have been due to a reflection of sunset glow on the ceiling) the same deep lines and yellow-grey colour that had worried me in the train.
'I don't know what made me say Benceston,' he continued; 'any seaside resort would do; but I feel that I must get a whiff of the sea. By the way Saxon's funeral was this afternoon: I hope they didn't jazz the Dead March.'
The last words were those of a cad but, in consideration for Frent's state, I let them pass and the conversation slipped into generalities. For some reason, however, he gave me the impression of trying to drag our talk round to some subject from which, as soon as he had manoeuvred it into proximity, he veered away in distaste. It was an unpleasant sensation, and after half an hour or so I made as though to take my departure by asking whether I might send him over anything to read.
'Have you by any chance got a book called The Bad Lands?' he replied.
'I'm afraid not: but I remember reading a short story under that name: by John Metcalfe, I think.'
Frent seemed quite excited.
Was it about a fellow being in two places at the same time, and doing something criminal in one of them while he thought he was doing something good in the other?'
'I don't think,' I protested, 'that the author would appreciate such a crude summary! The tale was extraordinarily well and carefully written.'
'And, in the light of modern conceptions of space and time, very likely a true one!'
'What on earth do you mean, Frent?'
'I mean that space can get kinks and double back over and under itself. Of course you know all that.'
'I most certainly do not, and I'm perfectly certain that you don't either. You must have been reading some such tosh as Einstein Without Tears or Brainfood for the Brainless. You had far better stick to your old Railway Magazines.'
'I know far more, Johnson, than you guess and than I wish. Some day, perhaps, I'll try to explain: but not now. Au revoir! and many thanks for coming round.'
I had recently purchased in five large volumes a series of maps of the counties of Great Britain with combined index. On reaching my house I went straight to the study and, taking down the index from its shelf, looked up 'Benceston'. My suspicions were not relieved. There was no such place.
I never met Frent again in the train after his recovery. This was because he changed his route and travelled from Wentlow, for East Brensham, to King's Pancras. This involved him in a mile and a half walk morning and evening; which, as being conducive to his good health, he gave as a reason for the change. His looks however belied the explanation. His condition indeed caused Dr Jameson and myself increasing anxiety; and my uneasiness was aggravated by his point blank refusal to consult Jameson professionally or to call in any other doctor. It was reassuring therefore when he informed us that a cousin, Gilbert Frent-Sutton, was coming to live with him.
This cousin, he told us, was a Fellow of All Saints and a recognised authority on the Middle Ages. He did not tell us, but we soon found out, that his cousin was also to be identified with Frent-Sutton the old Camford rugger blue. From the moment he arrived we recognised in him a man who would stand no nonsense; and we therefore felt happier about Frent, who was already in visible danger of going all to pieces unless he had somebody to help to keep him together.
A week or so after Frent-Sutton's arrival the doctor and I were invited by telephone to drop in together at Brenside and have a drink. At the gate we were met by Frent-Sutton.
'Before we go in,' he said, 'I owe you both an explanation. Adrian refuses, Doctor, to call you in professionally; but I got him to ask you round (using you, Johnson, as a sort of decoy) for a drink. The important thing is that, having attended him after his collapse, you should see him now and observe his present condition. It needs tackling at once. He has never told you yet about his delusions, though he suspects Johnson of having inferred their peculiar nature. Tonight he has promised to make a clean breast of them, and I fancy that you will find them important from the medical standpoint.'
We went in and, sitting in a half-circle round the fire, began our drinks over the usual small talk. Frent-Sutton was, however, a believer in getting to grips with a job quickly and broke in early with a request that Adrian would tell us all about his Benceston business. 'Tell us everything, old man: right from the very beginning when your father and old Saxon held the stage.'
'I'll try,' responded Frent, not at all averse to becoming the centre of our interest, 'and I'll make it as short as I can. Our firm's name, you know, is Frent, Frent and Saxon; and that is because when my father turned the show into a limited liability company he kept a third share for himself and reserved a second third for me (against the day when I should have grown up and proved my business capacity), while he allowed his manager, old Saxon, to take up the remaining third share.
'Old Saxon's boy and myself were unfortunately of the same age, and wherever my father sent me—to Heathcote, Winchingham and Oxbridge—old Saxon must needs send Paul. He dogged my footsteps everywhere and at both schools, and later at the Varsity, he excelled me both in games and work. My parents took shame from my inferiority and perpetually upbraided me with letting them down. As a result I grew to hate Paul and detested him the more for a desire on his part to fraternise.
'Finally we entered into the firm's business simultaneously; I to be my father's greatest disappointment and Paul to be his right-hand man and, at old Saxon's death, his energetic partner. Paul also inherited money from an aunt, and my father, in appreciation of his work, allowed him 'to purchase the share in the business which he had earmarked for me. On my father's death, therefore, I had only the one-third share in the business which I inherited from him against Paul's two. Frent, Frent and Saxon had become in reality Saxon, Saxon and Frent. I was permanently number two to my life's enemy; and during every day and hour of our partnership my hatred for him proliferated. It possessed my whole being.
'I don't very often go to church, but I had done so on the Sunday preceding my collapse in the train; and it was the parson's sermon that brought home to me the full significance of my hatred. He was preaching on sins of intention and quoted that text about a man committing fornication in his heart if he looks upon a woman lasciviously. The same logic, the parson pointed out, applies to the other commandments. Many people might regard themselves as pretty safe against a breach of the sixth; but we must remember that anybody who allowed his imagination to dwell on how much nicer things would be if only so-and-so were out of the way had already committed murder in his heart. I at once realised this to be true. I was murdering Paul daily: and, quite clearly, it was my duty both to him and myself that I should cut adrift from our partnership.
'Nevertheless, I delayed doing it, fearing the explanation which Saxon would demand and the loss of employment in which it must land me. This delay added further fuel to my hate. You will remember, Johnson, how, in the train that day, you joked about the possibility of the cold cure which I had lent to Saxon proving as deadly as the dose that killed my dogs. That jest of yours brought me, with a jerk, bang up against the actuality that I had, in passing the bottle to Saxon, thought how easy and pleasant it would have been to hand over some poisonous mixture, if any such had been to hand. I tried to keep my mind off this memory by reading the paper, but without success, and then endeavoured to concentrate on other thoughts. Johnson knows my fondness for railway history and I had told him how an important railway project had ended ignominiously in a gasworks siding. I forced myself now to imagine what would have been the route of the abortive London, Middlehampton and East Coast Railway and what might have been the livery of its rolling stock. While my thoughts were being directed along these lines, we rattled through Ponsden Priory and, to my momentary surprise, I felt the train, instead of carrying straight on over the points, swing right-handed towards the siding. I say "momentary surprise" because, within a few seconds, it seemed perfectly right and natural to me that we should be travelling eastwards. I noticed the monogram, L.M. & E.C.R. on the antimacassars opposite and, above them, two pictures of Bencestonon-Sea and one of Bellringers Cliff. The scenery through which we were passing was also familiar, and I knew that before reaching Benceston the train would stop at Latteridge Junction to pick up passengers.
'I also had a certain foreboding that among the passengers we should pick up would be Paul Saxon. And so it turned out. As the train glided in, I spotted him out of the corner of my eye and surreptitiously watched him enter a compartment three doors off from mine.
'At Benceston West he got out, and I heard him tell a uniformed porter from Fotheringham Hotel to take up his suitcase.
'That gave me my cue. I journeyed on to the East Station and took up my quarters at the Porchester. Paul and I, therefore, had a good three miles between us and ample space in which to avoid each other.
'This, however, was not to be. Walking, next day, along the summit of Bellringers Cliff, I suddenly heard a whistling of that filthy tune, "Lulu on the Lilo", followed by a loathesomely hearty "By Jove! How are we? Fancy meeting you up here! I say, what a magnificent view of the sea one gets!" He stood at the edge of the cliff, gazing seaward. I took a hurried look to right and left. We were alone. Striking him from behind, on both shoulder blades, I caused him to overbalance and fall forward. I was alone. My heart thumped with the joy of quick decision and prompt execution. Glancing at my wrist watch, I saw that it was a quarter to three. I started singing, and was just about to peer over the edge, in order to see if Saxon's body had fallen on the rocks above or below tide-level, when a a large hand grabbed me by the arm and swung me round so that I faced inshore. My aggressor was a man of over six feet and broad in proportion.
'"I will see you to the Police Station," he said, "and, mind you, no tricks! Give me your right hand." I suppose that I fainted, for everything seemed to go misty and black, and the next thing of which I became conscious was lying in bed, here in this house.
'Now you three persons listening to my story have doubtless relegated this Benceston part of it to the realm of dreamland; and that was my intention also. In order to prevent any recurrence of the stimuli that led to the nightmare I gave up travelling to London via Ponsden and used the other line to King's Pancras. In doing so I forgot that I had returned from Benceston not by train, but in a faint or swoon; and I soon learned to my horror that this process was reversable. During the past few weeks I have re-visited Benceston many times in trance or swoon. I have stood my trial there for murder and heard sentence of death pronounced on me. The Governor of Benceston Prison has told me that my execution takes place tomorrow morning at eight. Give me a brandy, Gilbert.
'Thank you; that's better. Now I want all three of you to be here at that time tomorrow morning to protect me, and I will tell you why. I have noticed that things which happen at Benceston can simultaneously take place here, if in a different manner. For example, Saxon died from pneumonia at the same instant as I thrust him over Bell-ringers Cliff. The exact time of his death is one of the first things I ascertained after my return to work. Lyster had been at the deathbed. I have no doubt that punctually tomorrow morning, as the clock strikes eight, whatever it is that corresponds to me in Benceston will be hanged. Therefore you must agree to be here with me at that hour. I can see that you think me mad: but if you will do what I ask, I promise you that at five minutes past eight tomorrow you will find me sane and sensible beyond all doubt. Whatever it be at Benceston that shares my identity and usurps my consciousness will have been killed by then and myself set free. Do promise, therefore, to come without fail.'
Frent directed a beseeching look at each of us in turn, and each nodded his assent.
On our way home Jameson was, for him, unusually communicative.
'I shall have to get Hasterton on to this case. Frent may think that tomorrow morning will see the end of his delusions; but he is wrong. I know these symptoms, and there cannot be a sudden end to them.'
Nevertheless, there was.
The doctor called for me next morning, and at ten minutes to eight we walked across to Brenside.
On entering the hall, I was surprised to see the hands of the large chiming clock registering seven fifty-five.
'That clock's fast,' I said to Frent-Sutton as he came out of the drawing-room, followed by his cousin, to meet us.
'Oh, no! it can't be. Adrian's been on to the Exchange twice this morning. That's Greenwich time all right.'
For a man who, in his own apprehension, stood in danger of imminent death, Frent struck me as unexpectedly calm and collected. He bade us take chairs facing the clock, and we must have looked a strange group as we sat watching the dial. The tick of the pendulum acquired unusual sonority owing to our silence: a silence dictated for three of us by our consciousness of the fatuity of the whole proceeding.
A click and a cluck, followed by a whirring of small wheels, heralded the chimes, and I saw Frent dig his fingers into the leathered arm of his chair. The interval between the chimes and the hour gong seemed interminable; but, at last, the eight strokes droned out—and, as we had foreseen, nothing whatever happened.
'And now you chaps must celebrate my release! Thanks ever so much for seeing me through. We can't very well have whisky at this hour though! Gilbert, tell Ada to bring coffee quickly, while I dash upstairs and get a handkerchief.'
Both cousins had thus left the room when Jameson exclaimed suddenly: 'What's that?'
The morning breeze made them faint; but we heard unmistakably the chimes of Brensham parish church; and then the distant boom of the great hour bell.
Simultaneously, there came from almost above our heads a noise of rending, a cry, a crash, and, nearer to us still, a dull, heavy thud.
We rushed down the back passage, where we ran into Frent-Sutton as he hurried out from the pantry. In the wooden ceiling above us gaped a yard-square hole, and immediately below lay the ruin of a trap-door, with hinges torn from the supporting joist. It was Frent's fire-escape. Over what was close beside it the Doctor now leaned, and, having lifted one end, laid it gently back.
'Finish!' he said; 'broken neck.' And then, looking on the broken door beside him and up at the hole above, he added: 'Amateur carpentry and unseasoned wood! A fatal combination.'
'But why on earth,' I interjected, 'should he have gone into the box room?'
'And why,' murmured Frent-Sutton, 'should be have set that clock fast? He insisted on ringing up for the time and doing it himself!'
'Possibly,' Dr Jameson rose from his examination, 'they may know the answers to those questions in Benceston!' Possibly.
Mrs Tullivant rose from her seat and looked for her glasses everywhere but on the table where they very obviously lay.
'Here they are, my dear,' said her husband, with a thin smile that failed to hide his weariness of a good deed daily repeated.
'Thank you, Peter! Now I'm off to bed, and will leave you and Mr Morcambe to enjoy your music. I'm afraid that I'm a bit of a wet blanket where music is concerned.'
'My wife,' Mr Tullivant explained, 'has no use for composers whose names begin with B, H, M or S. That, of course, knocks out all the great masters!'
'What my husband says is quite true, Mr Morcambe. You can't imagine what a difference their names and initial letters make to my enjoyment of things and people! I just can't read the Bible, Milton or Shakespeare: and pictures by Holbein or Hogarth make me shiver. Although their styles and subjects are so different I feel a similar dislike for Millais, Morland and Murillo. And, by the way,' here she pointed an accusing knitting pin at her guest, 'your name begins with an M, you know!'
Before Morcambe had time to reply, the lady, with an ironical curtsey, had backed to the door and departed.
It may be said at this point that the mistress of Dulling Towers was known to her cottager neighbours and tenant as 'a proper caution'. Not that all she did was unacceptable but she was invariably and, sometimes it seemed, laboriously peculiar. This eccentricity she carried into all her activities, even into charitable works. Whether the latter category covered her annual distribution of two white mice apiece to the Sunday School children on Holy Innocents Day is doubtful; but, in order not to forfeit her largesse in other directions, the Vicar of East Dulling had to pretend that it did. On St. Valentine's Day she similarly presented a pair of white rabbits to every bachelor or spinster whose name appeared on the St. Stephen's Communicants' Roll; and on Michaelmas Eve a white goose was delivered from her farm to every married household among her tenantry.
Her attendance at Divine Service on Sundays and Holy Days was faithfully regular, except on festivals of saints whose names begin with B, H, M or S. The black-letter saints served this method of limitation quite as effectually and with greater frequency than the red-letter ones. Her noticeable absence from the Dulling Towers pew on the rare occasion of a Bishop of Wintonbury's visit made it necessary for the Vicar to explain to his Diocesan that the Sunday chosen for the Confirmation unfortunately coincided with the church's annual commemoration of the Venerable Bede.
In summer time she professed a strong faith in bare-footedness as a means to perfect health. Children's parties were accordingly given at the 'Towers' for which no footwear was permitted, and the Vicar sorely regretted the public exposure of corns and twisted toes entailed by his necessary attendance at the midsummer school-treat.
In her choice of clothes, hats, books, furniture and friends Mrs Tullivant was equally wayward and aggressive. Her vagaries must, in some directions, have proved expensive; but she intended them to be so. 'I value wealth,' she would say, 'only as the key to self-expression.' This key had passed to her, as only child and sole heiress, on the death of the late Sir Jeremy Andler, the proprietor of the well-known Andler's Nerve Tonic. Lady Andler had died long ago in an effort to provide her daughter with a little brother or sister; and the youth of Mrs Tullivant had been that of a pampered dictatress, whose every whim and fancy had met with paternal submission and encouragement.
'My wife'—Peter Tullivant turned his eyes from the closed door to meet those of his old friend—'probably appears to you to have perfected futility to a fine art. That unfortunately is not the case. There is a sinister method in her madness. Roger, old boy, I am an intensely unhappy man!'
Morcambe gazed at his host in sympathetic surprise at this confession, and waited for him to proceed further. To listen to a friend's complaints about his wife is forgivable, but not the prompting of them. Tullivant, moreover, quickly resumed.
'You did your best to save me from this marriage, Roger, and that is how I feel able to talk to you about it. I never really cared for Maud, much less loved her, but she amused me and I had no reason then to regard her oddities as anything but amiable and quaint. I anticipated that with the help of her large income we would live amicably together, and I enjoy the life of a leisured country gentleman. You know my tastes. I looked forward to a day or two a week with the hounds and to bridge or billiards of an evening; to motor tours on the Continent, and to some shooting here and in Scotland. That, of course, was what suggested to her her plan of campaign, or system of torture.'
'What on earth can you mean, Peter?'
'Bridge, billiards, hunting, motoring and shooting: B, H, M and S!'
'Good heavens! you don't mean to tell me...'
'I mean to tell you that in her apparently capricious and idiotic aversion to whatever begins with those four letters lies a cunning stratagem to thwart and frustrate me in everything and to make my life unbearable. I once told you my financial position as a bachelor: I had a meagre competence of some three hundred a year. Fifty of that I lost in a gramophone company, and what remains just about suffices to pay my club bills and keep me in clothes. For everything else I have to go to my wife, and she jots down in her account books every farthing I spend and determines on what I may, and on what I may not, spend it. It's nothing short of slavery, and if it weren't for one thing I'd pack up and quit.'
'What is it that keeps you?'
'My love for this dear old place and garden. Her pride in appearances prevents my wife blighting them with her ridiculous B, H, M, S taboo. She gets over it by pretending never to remember the names of trees or flowers; she realises that it is the spell of Dulling Towers that binds me to her, and is far too astute to give me my liberty by weakening that bond. On the contrary she encourages my passion for gardening because of the hold which it gives her over me.'
At this point Tullivant, in reality startled at the extent to which he had allowed himself to disclose his marital infelicity, made a show of self-possession by filling his pipe with much deliberation and apparent fixity of attention. This however did not deceive Morcambe, who at once effected the change of subject which he felt circumstances to require.
'Well, let's get on with the music! What are you going to play me?'
'There are four hundred gramophone records in that cabinet all arranged alphabetically under the composers' names. Make your choice. You'll find the contents listed on the cardboard schedule at the top of each drawer.'
Thus invited, Morcambe walked over to the cabinet and began his inspection.
'Hullo! this middle drawer is locked and there is no key. What do you keep in here?'
The pipe being by this time filled, Tullivant moved slowly over to the mantelpiece, picked a paper spill from a vase and stooped to light it at the fire. His back was therefore towards Morcambe when he made the unexpected reply: 'I wonder, Roger, whether you'd allow me to try a little experiment on you?'
'Experiment? What sort of experiment?'
'Oh! nothing difficult or troublesome,' Tullivant explained, rising from the fire and standing in front of it; 'only that I want you to put on the record which is in that locked drawer and play it to yourself while I go out of the room. The only other thing necessary to the experiment is that I should bolt the door on the outside after I've left you. The object of the experiment will be to ascertain your psychological reactions on an undisturbed hearing of the record which, as you will find out, is a very special and unusual one. That is why I keep it locked up.'
'But why bolt the door?'
'I'll tell you that afterwards, if you still want to know; but I think you'll soon find out. Ah! here's the key: I always keep it in my ticket pocket in order not to get it mixed up with those on my key-ring. There you are!'
Morcambe took the record and surveyed it with considerable curiosity. The colour of the disc was not the usual black but a dark chocolate brown, and it had a blank apple-green label on which was written in manuscript:
SIEDEL'S SONATA IN D MINOR
Violin: Igor Vidal
Piano: Moritz Vidal
'I'll tell you all about that record when you've played it through,' Tullivant promised as he inserted a new needle in the pick-up, 'and till then I'm off. You know how to turn the thing on? I shouldn't have the loudspeaker quite full on if I were you. Now, please don't forget to register your sensations, for I shall want to know all of them: so keep your mind on the music.'
Morcambe smiled a little wryly as his host closed the door and audibly slid the outside bolt. Really it all seemed rather ridiculous; but one mustn't blame the husband of so eccentric a wife for developing a few crazes of his own! The disc was now revolving, and with a firm but delicate touch Morcambe set the needle to its margin and, settling into his chair, awaited the music. Oh, that tune! He knew the piece well enough and associated it with D'Esterre's music at the Vallambrosa. But D'Esterre would never have murdered the violin like this! Whether the fault lay with player or instrument, the tone was indescribably horrible: it reminded Morcambe somehow of an animal moaning in pain, or was it rage? The piano, on the other hand, was being played exquisitely and, by contrast, made the violin all the more intolerable. Morcambe, indeed, rose from his chair to turn the radiophone off, but checked himself as he called to mind that this was an experiment and this his first reaction that he must remember to describe to Tullivant. As he moved towards the fire the tone of the violin grew even more shrill and strident, and fiercer in its apparent enmity to the piano. Catching a sudden glimpse of his reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece, Morcambe did not like what he saw and turned angrily round. Sonata indeed! Vendetta for violin and piano, that was what he was listening to. The violinist had now reached that pizzicato passage in the first movement, in which his brutal plucking of the strings moved Morcambe to fury. With a pounce at the grate he seized the small poker from its tripod and brandished it towards the radiophone. No: there would be no relief in smashing that inanimate machine. The music clamoured for violence to flesh and blood! In a nervous frenzy he sprang towards the door, and then as suddenly recoiled. That swine, Tullivant, in his dirty cunning had, he remembered, bolted it. But there was another way to get at him—through the french window! No, damn it! He had bolted that too. At this moment there rang out on the piano the lovely solo recapitulation of the second theme; but Morcambe shivered in anticipation of those piercing chords in which the two instruments would shortly wrestle in the tempestuous coda. If only he could get at Tullivant!
But before ever the chords sounded, there came in quick succession a thud, a scream, a choking and a moan; and then, save for the scratching of the needle on the record, silence. The sweat stood out on Morcambe's forehead and on the back of the hand in which the poker still hung limply clutched. Then with a clank it fell to the floor and he sank giddily into an armchair; nor did he hear the door unlocked before, looking up, he saw his host standing over him with a stiff brandy in his hand.
'Take this, old man; you'll soon come round. There's no delayed action about your nerves!' Here Tullivant picked up the poker. 'You'd have broken my skill if you could have got at me!'
Morcambe nodded and gulped down the brandy.
'And now perhaps you will be so good as to explain?' he suggested acidly.
'Certainly, Roger, I owe it you, and you shall have the whole story. You will remember my mentioning that I had lost money in a gramophone company. It was called Orpheophone Limited, and the idea was to begin business with the recording of a library of what our Chairman chose to call "popular classics". Siedel's Sonata was among the first half-dozen, and we thought ourselves lucky when Ballister, our manager, told us that he had booked the Vidal Brothers to play it. We little knew, nobody in fact knew, that they were not brothers at all, but distant cousins locked in a deadly feud which was to have its fatal finale in our studio. Igor waited till Moritz was playing that solo passage on the piano and then stabbed him through the back with a stiletto which he had kept in his violin case. Some of our shareholders, I remember, were sanguine enough to fancy that the tragedy might prove an advertisement for Orpheophone records!
'Of this Vidal recording only two impressions were taken before the matrix was destroyed: one for the purpose of being put in as an exhibit in the murder trial that followed. It was never brought in evidence, however, and was accidentally dropped and broken by one of the Court attendants. The other was the one which you have just heard.
'How did I come by it? Well, as a matter of fact, I found it in a parcel awaiting me at a Poste Restante in the Riviera, where I was on a motor tour with my aunt, Lady Sulcock, the following spring. With it was a note from Baluster to the effect that, if I were to play through the record by myself (on no account was I to play it in company) I might perhaps understand the nature of his crime and think kindly of him. He dared to hope so, for he had always valued my friendship. This message completely mystified me, for I saw no English newspapers during our tour and had heard nothing of the second murder. Nor did I have a gramophone on which to play the record, which I therefore packed carefully in my trunk.
'On my return to England in late summer the tragedy was soon unfolded to me in a circular from the Orpheophone Company. By that time Ballister had already gone to the gallows for the unprovoked murder of one of the studio messenger boys. At the trial he had comported himself with great dignity and contrition; there was, he told the Judge, an explanation for his act which he would reserve for the judgment seat of the Almighty, as he could not expect any human judge or jury to accept it, true though it was. His bank balance he made over to the mother of the murdered boy.
'With Ballister's death Orpheophone Limited lost its best servant and, worse than that, mischievous rumours arose of the studio being haunted. The balance sheet for the second year presented the alternatives of winding the company up or of raising more capital. It seemed an unlucky enterprise, and the Board consequently decided not to risk throwing good money after bad: so the show was closed down.
'I never got an opportunity of playing the record, as I was living in hotels or staying with friends until after my marriage. I respected Ballister's memory too well to break his condition of solitary audience. Then I forgot about the thing entirely in my first enjoyment of Dulling, and it was not until my wife flew into one of her tantrums one evening and left me alone with the radiophone in this very room that I remembered the record and brought it downstairs. I shoved it into the machine forthwith, and with what psychological effects you can now yourself judge. I could not even wait for the end of the music, but grabbed a desk knife (which, by the way, I carefully stowed away before trying my experiment on you!) and rushed out into the hall and up the stairs. Well, that was when I first discovered that my wife always sleeps with her bedroom door locked!'
There was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence before Morcambe found his voice.
'That's a fine roaring fire behind you. What do you say to our consigning that record to the flames?'
'What! Burn it? Certainly not. I never chuck presents away, especially not those from friends that are dead. For everything comes its day of utility. There, now! It is safely locked up again in its solitary confinement. Many thanks, old fellow, for helping me to make sure that my previous experience wasn't just a matter of personal imagination. And now, I expect, you're about ready for bed?'
Morcambe was quick to agree, both because he had disliked the experiment and the ensuing conversation and also because he had to catch the 8.20 train at Brecklethorpe next morning. He slept not too badly, and had had breakfast and was already in the car when his host appeared on the doorstep in a dressing-gown to bid him goodbye.
'I wish,' said the departing guest, 'that we'd burnt that damned record.'
'I know exactly what you have been imagining, Roger,' Tullivant replied, 'but you completely misunderstood me. To put that old mind of yours at rest I'll give you this solemn assurance; that I will never lay violent hands on Maud. Never. You may take my word on that.'
The car was already in motion and Morcambe was not sure that he caught Tullivant's concluding words correctly, but they sounded to him like 'it won't be necessary'. That, however, didn't seem to make sense.
Four or five weeks later Roger Morcambe was having breakfast in his small house at Nether Foxbourne when his maid, coming in with the newspaper, asked if she might make bold to ask a question.
'Why, certainly, Bertha; and I hope I may be able to answer it; but I'm not an encyclopaedia, you know.'
'That's as may be, sir; but cook keeps asking the name of that place as you stays in down Penchester way?'
'Dulling—Dulling Towers, to be exact.'
'Ah! and the name of the lady and gentleman as it belongs to?'
'Mr and Mrs Tullivant. But why do you ask?'
'Because, sir, of what's been wrote in this morning's Daily Scene. Such a scandal, cook calls it, as never she knew; and if they be the master's friends he'll sure be worried, she says.'
'Thank you, Bertha, for forewarning me. There's sure to be something about it in the Morning Digest, I expect; and I'll have a look after I've finished breakfast.'
No sooner had the door closed on Bertha than her master, yielding to the curiosity which he had felt it dignified to dissemble in her presence, tore open the paper. From its second page there stared at him these ugly headlines:
COUNTY HOSTESS ARRESTED
Alleged attempt to murder
From what followed, the reader was given to understand that the County Hostess in question was Mrs Tullivant of Dulling Towers, near Penchester, and that the intended victim of assassination was Miss Jane Cannot, her second housemaid. The lady had apparently been sitting at needlework in the drawing-room when the maid came in to clean the grate and lay the fire. The latter saw her mistress place a record on the gramophone and afterwards heard some music, but indistinctly as she was partially deaf. The next she knew was a dreadful pain in the back and her mistress bent over her, stabbing and stabbing again. At this she had fallen forward into the fireplace and fainted.
Mr Tullivant, it was next reported, was helping Mr Hopkins, the gardener, to prune and tie up the virginian creeper outside the french window. Hearing a scream they dashed together into the room, where the former tripped over the carpet and falling against the gramophone overturned it onto the parquet floor, smashing the record which it had been playing and also the glass protecting the control dials. It was the gardener, therefore, who tore his mistress away from the prostrate maid and forced her into a chair. The latter had terrible wounds on neck and shoulder, and one on the left upper arm, the consequences of which might yet prove fatal. She had been removed by motor ambulance to the Penchester Infirmary. The attack had been made with a large pair of sharply-pointed scissors from Mrs Tullivant's work-basket.
Morcambe read this account with an apprehension that increased on a second perusal. Nor was his uneasiness allayed by the Court proceedings reported at intervals over the following weeks. The evidence of Tullivant, Hopkins and Gannot herself (whose recovery was happily speedier than the doctors dared to expect) tallied in every detail and was quite unshaken in cross examination. The accused woman, however, insisted on telling a story which inevitably raised the question of her sanity. The assault, she declared, had been engineered by her husband. He had left lying on the gramophone lid a record, with instructions that she must not play it while alone because of its depressing psychological effects. He knew, therefore, that she would try playing it as soon as she had company, and he knew, too, that the first person to come in would be the deaf maid, Jane Cannot. He took up his position with Hopkins outside the french window in order to witness the success of his diabolical plan. It was the music that had compelled her to do the stabbing, and her husband had purposely fallen against the gramophone and smashed the record in order to deny her the proof of her statement. No: his purpose was not to injure the housemaid, though such injury was necessary to his plan. His object was to get herself, his wife, convicted and sent to prison so that he might have Dulling Towers all to himself.
This preposterous explanation of her act led the jury to suggest, and the judge to order, a remand of two weeks in order to enable a professional examination of her mental condition. For this purpose she was removed to the St Dymphna's Home in Penchester, whither a very large number of reports concerning her past eccentricities were posted by shocked but mercifully inclined neighbours, including the Vicar of East Dulling.
The verdict of guilty but insane, found by the jury three weeks later, met with much approval. The feelings of all in East and West Dulling were expressed by the Vicar's wife when she remarked at the Mothers' League, of which Mrs Tullivant had been patroness, that the poor thing could never have done it if only she'd been like other people. To which the assembled mothers added, 'Ah yes, indeed, poor thing!' It gave them naturally a thrill, after years of toadying to their cantankerous queen, to call her now a 'thing': poor thing!
Only for Morcambe did the lady's removal to a place of detention for the criminal insane raise unpleasant interrogations of conscience. Should he have volunteered his testimony in regard to that gramophone record? Would he not thereby have raised questions as to his own mental stability? He would, under cross-examination, have had to admit to very nearly a year's residence in Trantonhall for shell-shock; and they had told him, what indeed he knew, that his case had at one stage presented apparently mental symptoms. Then they would certainly unearth the tragedy of his uncle Edwin. Tullivant, of course, knew about all these things: and that was why, he now realised with shame and anger, Tullivant had chosen him to experiment upon that night! 'No,' he found himself muttering his conclusions out loud, 'my giving evidence would have been no manner of good to her but would have done all manner of harm to me. Moreover, from the standpoint of abstract Justice there is more perhaps to be said for locking up malignant eccentrics than unintentioned lunatics! But what a swine Peter has proved himself, he's worse than ever she can have been!'
Morcambe saw no reason to revise this opinion when in a sporting paper some weeks later he read that Mr Tullivant had obtained legal custody of his wife's estate and that frequent meets of the Haddenham Hunt were being held at Dulling Towers in response to his hospitable invitation. He might at least have waited till the next season! Morcambe decided never to visit Dulling again.
Nevertheless, he did, and within the year too. It was to attend Tullivant's funeral.
The last months of Tullivant's life were of almost unadulterated happiness. Not the least of his gratifications was to be addressed as 'squire', a misnomer which evidenced his growing popularity throughout the countryside. The fame of the Dulling shoots, hunt breakfasts and card parties had indeed spread far and wide, and Tullivant took good care that they should reach the ears of his compulsorily cloistered spouse. His personal visits to her invariably so aggravated her condition that the asylum authorities had soon limited them to one a month. Affecting still to humour her former fancies, and thereby to improve the conditions of her incarceration, he informed the doctors of her aversion to all things beginning with B, H, M or S and thus induced them to omit from her dietary and recreational curriculum many of the items which she liked best. This part of his revenge he found particularly sweet. He also extracted a sacrilegious enjoyment from the public prayers for his wife's recovery which the Vicar periodically offered at his hypocritical behest. With hands held over his eyes he would study through the chinks between his fingers the faces of choirboys and choirmen during such supplications. The lady had not been greatly missed, he inferred.
The only hobby in which Tullivant no longer cared to indulge was that of playing the radiophone. This had nothing to do with any defect in his sense of hearing but rather with some deterioration in that of sight. Whether he was developing colour blindness, or whether the illusion was due to some peculiarity in the room's illumination, he could never open a drawer of the record cabinet without seeming to find at its top a chocolate brown disc with an apple-green label. On each such occasion he found it necessary to steady his brain by repeating to himself the assurance that there had been only one such record and that he had most certainly smashed it to atoms. Nevertheless the hallucination persisted, and so he had to give up the radiophone.
The death of Tullivant in the fullness of his new and ill-found bliss cannot be better or more exactly told than in the words used by Mrs Hallowby at the inquest.
'My house in West Dulling is flush with the main London-Oxbridge road, along which the motor traffic is incessant. The front door opens straight onto the pavement, my garden being at the back. Last Wednesday morning I was putting up flowers in the dining-room, and my son and daughter had just gone upstairs to the music room to practise the violin and piano together, when the front door bell rang. It was about eleven o'clock and my maid had gone down to the village shop. So I answered the door myself and there found Mr Tullivant. He had walked over from the Towers by the footpath through Brereton's copse and had his black spaniel with him. He came in and I offered him a sherry after his walk but, as men often will, he preferred beer out of a pewter mug. While he was drinking we talked about our gardens, and he drew from his pocket a packet of hollyhock seed which he had promised me. After ten minutes or so he said that he must be getting back and, as I let him out of the front door, he pointed to an oncoming lorry and said, 'They ought to limit the size of these juggernauts, you know.' Then, with a wave of his hand, he walked across the road, and the dog was already on the other side. He had plenty of time to pass over and there was no need for the lorry-driver to slacken speed; but suddenly, right in the middle of the road he stopped dead with his head on one side as if listening to something. Then he turned completely round and shook his fist at the open window of my music room on the second floor. It was a mad act, for the lorry was on top of him in an instant. There was a crunching and squealing of brakes and I hurriedly put my fingers into my ears to keep out another sound that I knew must come. No; it was certainly not the driver's fault, and what suddenly possessed Mr Tullivant I cannot guess. He knew my son and daughter, but he certainly couldn't have seen them through the window for they had just that moment begun playing their piece for the village concert, and the piano is at the back of the room. I shall never hear that piece again without thinking of this tragedy; and it was a great favourite of my dead husband's too, and therefore very dear to me!'
'I sincerely sympathise with you, Mrs Hallowby,' said the coroner, 'for I am a musical man myself. Perhaps you would tell us the name of the piece?'
'Thank you, sir; most certainly. It was Siedel's Sonata in D Minor for violin and piano.'
'You were right, Warden, beyond doubt in shutting the show down in such circumstances. The annoying thing is that they never let me know.'
'If they had, though, we shouldn't have had you with us tonight: so you mustn't expect us to regret their omission!'
The scene is the Senior Common Room of Selham College, Oxbridge, and the preceding remarks have passed between Greville Tempest, the warden, and Cyril Hunslow, sometime resident fellow and history tutor, but now librarian and occasional master at distant Penchester.
'We've never really forgiven you for leaving us,' continued the warden; 'a man of your calibre's wasted on a public school.'
'Well, it's nice of you to miss me, but I've found more time for my writing and research there than ever I managed to get to myself here. I should never have got through the stuff for those two last books of mine outside the peace of Penchester! I owe more than I can say to the old aunt who left me Little Court and the money to live there. By the way, when are you coming down to stay with me again?'
'Very soon, I hope. I hear they've rebuilt your cathedral organ.'
'Now then, keep off music, please!' interposed Brisson, the sub-warden. 'We had quite enough talk of Bach and Beethoven and the rest of them last night. What I want to know is why should the closing down of the College Psychical Society, owing to the pranks of a pack of young fools, prevent us from hearing whatever Hunslow was going to tell 'em tonight?'
'An excellent idea! Yes, please do read us your paper, Hunslow. We got talking about ghosts here last week and nearly had a rough house.'
'Merely because,' explained old Harsleigh the chaplain, 'I endeavoured to suggest to certain of my more junior colleagues that a correct valuation of psychical data depends upon a nice discrimination between what is objective and what subjective.'
'And merely because,' exploded a young don with red hair and a freckled face, 'I pointed out that those terms connoted a distinction without a difference. To the idealist among philosophers the objective may be said to be subjective, and to the sensationalist in psychology the opposite is the case. If only Mr Harsleigh would stick to his theology and leave...'
'No more, Nicholls, please. We can't go ranging again over all that ground. Now, Hunslow, if you'll read us your paper I promise you a quiet audience in spite of these disputants.'
'Well, if you really want to hear it, I'll go upstairs and fetch it. It won't detain you for more than twenty minutes or so; and there's nothing in it that can't be explained in three or four different ways. So everyone will be welcome to his own theory and solution!'
While Hunslow is away they stoke the fire, pull their seats into a semicircle in front of it, and set the big leather armchairs at either end for the warden and the reader. Except for the heavily shaded reading lamp on a small table at the latter's side all lights are extinguished. The reading then begins.
A RECORD OF CERTAIN EVENTS ASSOCIATED BY THE WRITER WITH A DESK
by Cyril Hunslow
I have chosen the title of this paper carefully. It does not imply that the events which I shall narrate were of themselves connected with a writing desk, but only that I have associated them therewith. Whether the interconnection goes any further than that I must leave to your judgment. I only know that for myself the association will be permanent.
I will begin with four introductions.
First of myself. I am a historian and, as my books will bear witness, a critical historian. I have tried to apply the same critical standards to the preparation of this paper as to the compilation of my histories.
Secondly, of my paternal aunt, the late Mrs Agatha Telling, of Little Court, Penchester, my present home, which she left to me at her death. She was a Victorian lady of common sense and strong mind, and with no fads or fancies about her.
Thirdly, of Mildred Hudson, my aunt's parlour maid and after her decease my housekeeper. She was a gaunt, unimpressionable woman whom her mistress once not inaptly described as a footman in petticoats.
Fourth, and lastly, of the writing desk. It was of mahogany with inlays of patterned ivory on the slanting cover, which when opened and let down onto lateral draw-pins formed the writing board. Somebody, I forget who, once told me that the ivory inlays indicated the workmanship of French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. The catalogue of the Penchester Museum, however, to which I recently presented the desk, says nothing as to that; but classifies the piece as 'Miscellaneous: probably late Eighteenth Century'.
The first I remember of this desk was that it occupied a window corner of the almost disused morning room at Little Court. I only knew my aunt open it but once, and that was when on return from a walk with me she found on the hall table a telegram and a pre-paid reply form. Turning into the morning room and sitting at the desk she scribbled a quick reply. 'Here, Cyril,' she said, 'run along with this, will you, to the epitaph office?'
Did I say epitaph office?' My aunt seemed annoyed with herself. 'Of course I meant telegraph office. This wretched old desk always makes me talk and write nonsense!'
The inconsequence of this explanation of her mistake never occurred to me at the time. I was far too polite and politic a youngster ever to question the veracity or validity of an avuncular or auntly utterance. In point of fact I completely forgot her remark until I caught myself in the act of making a very similar one almost twenty years later: when the old lady had recently died and I was making a first entry on my inheritance. Nothing relevant to the subject of this paper happened, at least to my knowledge, in the intervening period.
I was, at the time to which we have now jumped, making a preliminary stay of two nights at Little Court before moving in my few bits of personal furniture. I wanted to see where they would fit in. It was an evening in early July and the daylight still strong enough after supper for me to try which of the four sitting-rooms on the ground floor would best suit my research work and writing. I wished to leave the drawing-room as Aunt Agatha had left it I felt sure that she would have preferred it so. The dining-room was too dark and the hall too open to interruption. There remained, therefore, only the morning-room, which (with substitution of my large writing-table for the too small old desk) would suit admirably. With a view to testing the light, which I like having over my left shoulder, I sat down at the desk, opened it and looked for paper whereon to write. There were no loose sheets, but there was one of those Victorian 'commonplace albums' with pages of different coloured papers, of which some twenty or so had been torn out and the remainder left blank.
Taking up a pen, with my thoughts focused on a future rearrangement of the furniture, I jotted down a few unpremeditated words on the top leaf. The light was quite satisfactory, and I decided to give instructions for my table to be sited exactly where the desk now stood. Before shutting it up again I glanced down at what I had written in the album, and what I saw gave me a little jerk of surprise. This is what I had written:
being a Miscellany of
MESSAGES FROM THE BEYOND
selected as suitable for engraving upon the
senders' tombs and for edification of the
passing reader: complete with appropriate
titles in superscript, carefully chosen
by The Editor
My first instinct was to ejaculate 'What rubbish!' when those long-forgotten words of my aunt suddenly rushed back on me: 'This wretched old desk always makes me talk and write nonsense.' And then, of course, she too had said something about epitaphs. Ah, yes! now I remembered: 'the epitaph office', that was it! Well, it was getting too dark now in the morning-room; so, having closed the album and shut up the desk, I returned to the cosiness of the drawing room, where curtains were already drawn and the lights lit. Having read the daily papers and two or three chapters of a novel I went to bed well satisfied with my new home.
I always keep on a table at my bedside a number of books and a writing pad; not because I am slow in going to sleep but because I wake early, especially on a bright summer's morning. I did so on the morrow of the events just recorded and, taking up the writing pad, amused myself between six and half-past seven o'clock by trying to compose a few epitaphs and titles for them on the lines of the nonsensical entry which I had made in the old album the night before. I managed with some racking of the brain, and certainly without any inspirational afflatus, to hammer out two; and these, for a reason that I shall shortly explain, I will now read out to you. The first is a message from 'Everyman' and its title 'Ex Nihilo Nihil'.
Producer, actor, audience, in one
I played 'My Life', and lived the parts I played:
The curtain's down; my piece has had its run;
Nothing remains: a shadow leaves no shade.
The second was from 'A Horticulturist' and its title 'In Heaven as it is in Earth'.
Too garish are these bright Elysian fields
Of endless summer and unfading flowers!
Must I then pine while Recollection yields
Solace of cloud and sunset, wind and showers?
No! I have found a corner of the sky
Where soil is heaped, and ash and mulch and mould;
Where leaves still fall, buds burst and blossoms die;
Where the First Gardener gardens as of old!
My reason for reciting these verses is that you will have at once noticed their entire difference in matter and manner from the stuff and style of my writing in the album the previous evening; which must have struck you, as it did me, as redolent of the eighteenth century. Those of you who have read my published metrical efforts—I dare not call them poems—will recognise my two epitaphs as quite of a piece with them. I was, indeed, gratified to find myself so normal on a slightly abnormal theme; and, by the time I had had breakfast and kept an appointment with the headmaster of Penchester regarding my acceptance of the post of School Librarian, I had forgotten all about the old desk and the album within.
Such forgetfulness was not, however, to last for long. On my return to lunch, Hudson (as Mildred desired me to address her in her new dignity of housekeeper) begged my pardon but had I expected any visitor that morning? My negative reply appeared to puzzle her and elicited the comment that in that case it was a most peculiar thing.
'What is peculiar, Hudson?' I enquired.
'Well, sir; you know of them fainting fits as I were telling you of yesterday? While I were in the morning-room and you was out, and I bent my head over the writing-desk to see as whether there weren't no ink in the inkpot which Mrs Telling always said it was my duty for to see to properly, I suddenly come over that giddy and strange that I lay down longways on the sofa and shut my eyes, and whether I goes into a faint or a doze or what not I don't rightly know, but when I opens them again I see a gentleman sitting at the writing-desk and looking hard at that book as is inside of it. He was dressed queer too, just as though he step out of one of them fancy balls; in fact, he looked like a bishop, only worse.'
'What do you mean by "worse", Hudson?' I enquired.
'Well, he had little spindly legs same as a bishop, but were all untucked about the neck and no proper collar to him either. So he sits there laughing at what you had wrote in the book; and it was lucky, I thought to myself, as my dear dead mistress had tore out all her drawings of gravestones with rhymes on 'em as I could never make sense on, nor she neither I reckon, poor lady, for 'tweren't her as done it but the old desk, she would say. Well, sir, as I were a watching the old gentleman what should I do but tumble off the sofa, and when I pulls myself up again there weren't no old gentleman there at all and I minded that I must have been in a dream. But it were peculiar all the same, for my digestion weren't bad this morning and I ain't one to dream on a calm stomach nor in the daytime neither.'
'Don't worry yourself, Hudson,' I replied. 'Most of us have nightmares, and all that you have had is a daymare! There's nothing to be upset about: it's all perfectly natural.'
It is significant, is it not, that a majority of men and women seem to derive comfort from being told that a thing is natural. It is difficult not to infer that most of us tacitly accept the existence of phenomena classifiable in the opposite category!
At this stage of my experience and information in regard to the writing-desk I was no longer sceptical, though I remained acutely critical, of its association with some stimulus or urge towards sepulchral inscriptions. Indeed it wounded my self esteem to have to confess that through lack of adequate mental concentration I had allowed my pen to write words of which I could not consider myself the author. Nor was my discomfiture in any way relieved by Hudson's disclosure that a woman of my late aunt's strength of mind and character had suffered a similar subjection to an uninvited influence. I was glad in fact not to have to broach the subject to Hudson again, as I had already ordered the desk's removal to a big spare bedroom in order to make way for my writing-table downstairs.
In its new venue the desk was quite forgotten by me for some six months after my entry into permanent residence at Little Court. During that time I had no guests to stay, and it was not until after a succession of four visitors had been incommoded by it in the ensuing year that I offered the piece to the Penchester museum and paid for its removal thither. It is not necessary for the purposes of this paper that I should give the names of my four friends, nor have I their permission to do so. It will suffice to call them A, B, C and D.
A is a member of the Indian Civil Service, whose most marked traits are a profound pride—his enemies would call it conceit—in his profession; and a bigoted and militant atheism. He would suffer no criticism, serious or jocular, of either. I therefore studiously avoided both subjects and, as we found plenty to talk about outside of them, did not find their avoidance difficult. I was sorry therefore when on the third day he told me that he must leave on the morrow. He struck me as oddly fidgety and ill at ease in saying goodbye and, as his cab drove off, put his head out of the window to say, 'I'm afraid you'll find I've written some nonsense in your album: please forgive me.' Curiosity carried me quickly upstairs, and opening the album I read as follows:
GLORIA IN EXCELSIS
(from an Indian Civil Servant)
We sons of heaven here agree
Not to appear too fervent;
Each has the honour just to be
God's most obedient Servant.
(from an Atheist)
On earth I would mutter a curse on all
Fools who believe in God's essence:
But here it seems rather too personal
To pass such remarks in His presence.
The writing was indubitably in A's firm and readily legible hand; but just as certainly what was written constituted a plain negation of his authorship. It was, to use. Hudson's expression, 'a most peculiar thing'.
B came to stay a month or so after A, and in not removing the album from the desk but leaving it available to subsequent visitors I yielded to my curiosity to see what, if anything, they would write in it. At the time of his visit, B was Bishop's chaplain in a North Country See. He had previously been a country parson in East Anglia and has since become a much respected Archdeacon in the Midlands. I always found him tolerant of criticism of the clergy by the laity and frank but restrained in his reciprocation. The lines which he wrote (and for which unlike A he did not apologise, though he expressed surprise at having produced them) were incongruous in form rather than in substance with his ordinary writings. In the three weeks of his visit he wrote more than a dozen verses, of which I will read out three.
EXCEPT AS A LITTLE CHILD
(from a Lord Bishop)
Complete with mitre, cope and staff
I knock at Heaven's gate:
Why this should make the angels laugh
I cannot explicate.
NOR THY JUDGMENTS MY JUDGMENTS
(from a Minister of Religion)
That God is colour-blind in love
I from the grave forthtell:
My flock's black sheep are penned above,
My white lambs bleat in bell!
IMMORTALITY (from an Undertaker)
I, who with coffin, hearse and bier
Folk to their long rest laid,
Find in this dull and corpseless sphere
An insult to the trade.
I now come to verses written in the hand of C, but so aggressively naive and anachronistic that they at once appeared to me, and still appear, to leap at one straight out of the eighteenth, or very early nineteenth, century. C himself regarded them quite impersonally and apathetically as 'rum stuff'. A person of considerable inherited wealth and of consequent leisure, he was, nevertheless, devoid of any literary accomplishment or discrimination. With the remark that he doubted whether his old aunt (who had left him his money) would have approved of them, he was, apparently, able to dismiss the verses he had written from mind and memory, although he had contributed no fewer than nineteen additions to the album, of which I have selected eight as typical. Here they are:
(from an Uxoricide)
Who, hanged by neck till I was dead,
Had paid for my wife-murder
Now find the bitch arrived ahead!
Pray, what could be absurder?
REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM
(from a Recidivist)
Did I not sin sans fear or tear
Great sins of rape and arson?
Then why am I detailed to hear
Confessions from a parson?
(from a Courtesan)
For harlotry my soul I sold
On men's desire reliant,
But now must walk the streets of gold
Nor ever find a client.
(from a Politician)
The shams of party strife
Bred falsehood in my breath:
So did I lie through life
Who now lie still in death.
THE MIGHTY FROM THEIR SEATS
(from a Parish Clerk)
When the Duchess was churched, I intoned the response,
'Who putteth Her Ladyship's trust in Thee';
But her faith in the Lord must have suffered mischance
For Her Grace fills no castle in Sion's citie.
REDEMPTION AT PAR
(from a Company Promoter)
Unwanted? I? So good at schemes
To make thrice two look seven!
In need of no prospectus seems
The Company of Heaven!
(from an Usher)
The bad boys made me sad; the worse
Sadder (thou rightly addest);
But daily flogging his obverse,
The worst boy made me saddest.
(from a Dog Fancier)
No dogs allowed? No room for 'Squaw',
My friend I loved so well?
Too well,' St Peter said, 'and more
Than God: so Heaven's your Hell!'
The final entry to be made in the album before the desk's removal to the museum brought me face to face with tragedy. D had for many years been my greatest friend; and, as soon as I heard that his doctor had ordered him a complete rest and change of scene, I telegraphed an invitation to stay at Little Court. His rapid success at the Bar had led to overwork of both brain and nerve, and he had never been of really strong physique. Nevertheless, on meeting him at the station, I noticed none of the pallor or decline that I had expected in one sent for a rest-cure. On the contrary, D's complexion was florid and he appeared to walk and talk at full steam. It was unfortunate that I was reassured thereby into letting him sit up late in discussion and argument. I need not blame myself, however, for I heard later that his condition had puzzled even the specialists and that he was far from being what medicos call a straightforward case. It was a long way past one o'clock when we bade each other 'goodnight' in the upstairs corridor; and his last words to me were: 'Well, I feel a different man after our talk! Quite like old times, eh?'
At seven-thirty next morning I was awakened by Hudson knocking at my door to say that she was afraid that poor Mr D had been took very queer, and would I ring up for the doctor? To cut this sad story short, severe cardiac symptoms were diagnosed and my dear friend entered upon what could only be described as four months of protracted death before his final release. Two days after this collapse, he was removed, at his own request, to a nursing home run by a cousin of his at Davenham-on-Sea.
On my return from seeing him into the train—in which the doctor had arranged for him to be accompanied by a trained nurse—I found Mildred Hudson in tears. She hadn't meant to pry into what weren't nohow her concern; but would I go upstairs and see what the poor gentleman had written in that book? I of course did so and, from a shaky scrawl, deciphered the following:
Sham epitaphs I will not dare to write
In vein jocose: for I may die tonight.
This pain that stabs me through from chest to back
Must be precursor of a heart attack.
All I can offer is this sage advice,
'Cling hard to life: for dying is not nice!'
The grief caused me by these lines was not without remorse that I had not removed the album or locked the desk before D came. I sat down straightway and wrote a letter offering the desk to the Museum Committee. Pending their reply, I had it carried down and placed in the dark cupboard under the stairs. I had come suddenly to hate the sight of it.
It was six months or more after D's death, by which time I had succeeded in forgetting about the old desk and its associations, that, in my rearrangement of the School Library, I came across a portfolio docketed: 'Some materials for a history of Penchester'. Inside was a large number of unindexed and unarranged papers in print and manuscript; most of them belonging to the first half of the nineteenth century. On a cursory inspection they seemed of very unequal interest; but everything is grist to the mill of the historian, and I began placing them in chronological order as a first step towards a more thorough examination. A folio to which my attention was drawn by its unusual calligraphy, was headed: 'An Appreciation of our Cathedral Clergy, with a Short Note on Doctor Ermytage'. The clerical appreciations were nauseating examples of polysyllabic flattery; so that I turned with relief to the curt and crisp note on Dr Ermytage, which proved very far from appreciative. It is important to my purpose, and I will therefore read it to you in full:
Anselm Ermytage came to our organ anno 1795 and obiit 1806. Upon that instrument he would discourse sweet harmonies, but proved himself an organ of great discord in our midst. His quarrel with the Dean arose in the matter of music for Magnificat, whereof he set the whole to soft and sad melodies save only the sentences 'He shall put down the mighty from their seat' and 'the rich He shall send empty away'; the which he put to a great shouting by the quire with much noise upon the organ. Now the Dean's prohibition of this music lay upon the ground that singing after such sort made of the holy canticle of the Virgin nought but a dangerous song of revolution and contempt for the nobility. Wherein, Doctor Beven had the support of all persons of decent birth and superior understanding, but Dr Ermytage took his discipline so ill that he spread abroad an epitaph against the Dean's death, which he hoped might be soon, and vented therein his spleen upon the whole people of Penchester. The words of his lampoon, which few accounted wit, ran thus:
Such as knew Dean Beven well
Doubt not he has gone to hell.
Do not pity Doctor Beven,
After Penchester 'tis Heaven.
Whereafter he wrote many and diverse false epitaphs to the scandal of our city and to the sad annoyance of the dean and chapter. Moreover, upon his death, it was discovered in his testament that these and many more wicked verses had been set apart by him in his desk for posthumous printing, to which end he charged upon his estate the sum of one hundred guineas. But, upon the advice of his attorney, Mr William Telling of Little Court in this City (who became sole executor under this will after the death of the other, which had been Mr Mathew Bilney) did destroy these verses by fire and paid the whole amount aforesaid into the Bishop's chest for the sick and needy. And this he did notwithstanding a solemn caution in the said testament contained that, failing due and faithful execution thereof, the testator reserved the right of personal enactment. Of this solemn caution the attorney made light, holding that it was vain and beyond the law and impatient of a wise interpretation: but in late life Mr Telling was wont to confess that he doubted his action had been right and that he did not care to sit at the desk wherein the verses had been left by Dr Ermytage.
'That, gentlemen,' said Hunslow, 'concludes my paper. I will gladly answer, to the best of my ability, any question that you may wish to put to me. But any attempt at explanation I must leave to your more experienced judgment in such matters. As an historian I have endeavoured to present as true and full account of a series of events as my sources of information and experience permit. Beyond that I cannot go. I thank you for your patient hearing of what has been a longer paper than I anticipated when I accepted your invitation to write and read it.'
There was silence for a minute or so after the reading of the paper, during which its author leant forward and self-consciously poked the fire.
'I speak for us all, Hunslow,' said the warden, 'when I say that we've thoroughly enjoyed your paper. For myself, I confess that its literary transcends its psychical interest.'
'I'm not so sure about that!' exclaimed Nicholls, getting up and moving towards the electric-light switches. 'Hunslow's story needs examination in the cold bright light of reason. This spooky glimmer of the fire and huddling of shadows on the ceiling make for imagination and credulity. Let us, therefore, indulge in the symbolism of turning on the lights!'
There was a clicking of switches, a momentary flash, the splutter of a blown fuse, and a sudden relapse into gloom.
'As none of you have any questions,' Hunslow said, 'I think, if the warden will allow me, I'll be turning in now. Good-night!'
The present that pleased Philip Falmer most on his fourth birthday was the wooden working model of a garden pump sent to him by his Aunt Sarah. The accompanying letter informed him that it was the handiwork of young Simon Tubbins, the gardener's boy at Sockstead Hall, where Aunt Sarah's husband, Sir James Redlaw, reigned as Squire over the two parishes of Upper and Nether Sockstead. The model stood on a tripod, which could be placed and held firm by Philip's left hand in a basin of water, while his right worked the handle up and down and brought the water pulsing from the spout. Philip felt that he was now one up on his one-year-older brother, to whom, three months earlier, the same aunt had sent a model of a stationary steam engine. Edgar was not allowed methylated spirit for this engine, except when Miss Williamson, the nursery governess, was there to superintend its operation: for Mrs Falmer had declared it a dangerous gift for a child. Edgar disliked being called a child, and could not view as a gift to him anything of which he was forbidden sole and unrestricted use. The pump, on the other hand, was rated by the mother as 'most sensible and suitable', and, for a week or so, Philip and his pump were in reciprocating, and almost perpetual, motion. It was only when he tried pumping brilliantine taken from the bottle on his father's dressing table as a variant from water that some few parental restrictions had to be enacted and enforced.
It may be doubted whether the generality of aunts, uncles, godfathers, godmothers, parents and other customary donors of presents to children sufficiently realise the dangers of unintelligent generosity. If your godson asks for a pump, by all means give him one; for his request shows that he is already pump-minded. But to walk into a toy shop and there order a steam engine for Edgar, a pump for Philip, and a pistol for Arthur without knowing whether Edgar wants an engine, Philip a pump or Arthur a pistol, involves a terrible responsibility. Just as a twig thrown into a mud bank may in time deflect the channel of a river, so may a chance-chosen toy determine the course of a child's psychology. Thus it came about that Philip, who had never previously paid any attention to pumps, soon began to search them out as objects of prime interest in the houses and gardens of his parents' neighbours and friends.
One afternoon indeed he made bold to work the handle of the large and ancient pump in Tarrington Churchyard. The Sexton must have been cleaning up the vestry when he heard its sonorous clanking, for, to Philip's consternation, he came fiercely running out of the door in the south aisle. The boy need not however have been frightened, for the old man, seeing who he was, seemed vastly amused and bade him go home and tell his father, 'as he had found where to draw white wine with plenty of body in it'. Philip, though not understanding the message, disliked the rather sinister cackle with which it had been confided; and, because of this dislike, he did not repeat it to his father, but suppressed it. He could not however forget the incident, which caused him thenceforward to classify pumps in two categories, nice and nasty, and to suspect all pumps in lonely or unusual places as likely to belong to the latter. Philip's new interest soon extended to other items of hydraulic apparatus besides pumps. Although his parents never traced the disaster to his agency, the overflowing one morning of their main cistern and the consequent fall of plaster from the ceiling of the bedroom beneath, resulted from Philip's first self-introduction to a ball-cock. For many months he could never resist the thrill to be derived from pressing the copper float under water and then allowing it to spring up again—a sudden, jerky movement for which the mechanism was not designed.
Then there were taps. Here, again, a dual classification suggested itself. There was the honest straightforward tap with a spout which, if you turned it, showed clearly what it was doing; but there was also the mysterious and secretive tap (to be found in dark cupboards, long passages, or under iron flaps in the outside pavements), whose purposes were hidden. Experiment in regard to the latter was hazardous. When the bottom of the kitchen boiler was burnt out for lack of water, Philip, overhearing cook's loud complaint to his mother, rushed speedily upstairs to readjust the tap in the wainscot of the housemaid's closet with which he had previously meddled, thereby flooding the kitchen range, putting the fire out, and spoiling the dinner. Luckily Mr Falmer, on the data before him, decided that there must have been a temporary blockage in the supply pipe, and his son went unsuspected. Strangely enough, it was a tap of the straightforward variety that shortly afterwards led to his temporary undoing. It was the First Sunday in Advent, and he had greatly enjoyed joining in the singing of hymns about 'Rejoice! Rejoice!' and 'dee-he-heeply wailing', when he noticed a dribbling and a bubbling, and heard a slight sizzling, from the escape-cock of the radiator at the side of the family pew. The temptation was too great and he gave the little tap a smart twist. There was a merely momentary interruption to the Vicar's recital of the Litany, but permanent injury to Miss Williamson's smartest hat, damage which clearly necessitated a beating from his father, even though it was Sunday.
Once a week Mrs Falmer would drive over in the pony trap to do shopping in Bludborough, and it was there that Philip caught his first rapturous glimpse of that apotheosis of a pump, a fire engine in action. It was in Bludborough, too, that, at the invitation of the Waterworks Superintendent (who was Miss Williamson's brother-in-law), Edgar and he were allowed to inspect the huge beam-engined pumps that lifted water from the marsh meadows up to the town reservoir above the railway station.
The hydraulic ram which supplied the large tank at Tarrington Hall Philip found not altogether pleasant. The nature of the apparatus at the intake on the bank of Tarrington mill-pond was explained to him by his father, with the aid of the letter scales on the library writing-table. The slow, rhythmic click-clack which was audible above the iron plate protecting the intake reminded him somewhat of the tick-tock of the grandfather clock on the stairs. The din coming from the ram itself in its shed below the mill dam (a 'clang and a scroosh', as Edgar described it) was a very different sort of noise and, Philip felt, rather alarming. Nor was his apprehension lessened when, finding the shed door open one day, he ventured to peep inside. The man who was doing repairs or making adjustments undoubtedly meant to be kind; but, accustomed to preach in a neighbouring chapel, he proceeded, 'after explaining to Philip the principle of the ram, to point a religious moral. 'You'll have took heed, young sir, as how precious little of the water that comes down from the pond gets into this small pipe as leads to the 'all on the 'ill. Most on it spills out, as you see, and runs down the drain: which be a true parable of the Lord's working; for it's only His elect as may be squirted through the valve of grace up the narrer pipe to 'eaven, while most on 'em goes splashing down the sewer of sin to 'ell.'
The half-light, half-gloom of the shed; the alternate thump, squelch and gurgle of the dimly discerned ram, and the awful admonitions of its guardian, put poor Philip in a sudden fear of he knew not what. Precipitately he rushed from the shed, banging the door behind him, and made off home as fast as his legs would carry him. As he ran, his fear became gradually submerged in a sense of shame at having been a coward; but, before reaching the front gate of Gorse Lodge, he had regained his self-possession sufficiently to try to dismiss both fear and shame from his mind. When, therefore, his mother asked where he had been (it was Miss Williamson's afternoon off and both boys were left to their own devices), he replied that he had walked down along the fields by Highbarrow to have a look at the cows and pigs. So, indeed, he had—on his way to Tarrington mill-pond. But he couldn't forget that ram; or its noise, or its keeper!
During the next year and a half nothing much occurred of relevance to our tale. The model pump lasted only a matter of months, Philip having soon become tired of it. Its final breakdown was due not to fair wear and tear, but to use as a missile against a too vocal cat. Philip's interest in hydraulic paraphernalia, which the model had aroused, nevertheless persisted and expanded. In spite of parental, and even fraternal discouragement, he paid surreptitious visits to the Bludborough sewage farm. But, beyond this, there is nothing else to be told of the period which intervenes between the events already recorded and those about to occupy our attention.
The scene now is Sockstead Hall, where the Falmers are paying a spring visit to the Redlaws. The reader will remember that Lady Redlaw, donor of the model pump to Philip, is Mrs Falmer's sister. The two boys, now nearly six and seven-and-a-half respectively, are on their best behaviour; being slightly overawed by the grandeur and dignity of ancient Sockstead as compared with the modest modernity of their own home at Gorse Lodge.
It is the third afternoon of the visit, and the whole party, except Philip, have driven off in the wagonette to Penchester to see the reconstructed retrochoir of the cathedral and the new reredos. Philip was considered too young for such an architectural treat; and, moreover, there was no room for him in the wagonette. Having ascertained that the cathedral was, apart from its font and an antiquated system of hot-water pipes, barren of hydromechanical devices, Philip did not at all mind being left out of the party. He had in fact been waiting for an opportunity of having an uninterrupted yarn with Simon Tubbins, the artist of the model pump. Simon was in due course found in the big potting-shed between the greenhouses in the walled garden. Although still called 'gardener's boy' Simon seemed to Philip to have grown to full-size manhood since they last met two years ago. He was, consequently, shy in starting conversation; but, at the first mention of the model pump, all reserve melted away and they were soon jabbering together as old friends. Yes: Simon still made models in his spare time, if he could find any. He was now at work on one of a windmill pump. What! never seen a windmill pump? Well, Squire had had one put up by the home farm, and it was well worth looking at. It would certainly be working today, with this spanking wind. No: the model her Ladyship had bought two years ago for a Christmas present wasn't a copy of the pump in the kitchen garden, but of the one in Thorp's Spinney. Where was Thorp's Spinney? Well, if the bull weren't out, you could take the short-cut and it was only two fields away beyond the home farm. The pump had been put there to water the cattle, but the well ran dry most seasons; so there were no cattle kept there now, and nobody used the pump.
No, unfortunately; Simon couldn't possibly go there with Philip that morning, because he must get these three dozen flower-pots ready filled for Mr Lewkin to put the cuttings in at twelve o'clock. But if Master Philip would like to go by himself he couldn't possibly miss the way. You walked straight as far as the home farm gate, where you would see the windmill pump in the field on your left and the stile leading to Thorp's Spinney on your right. If the bull were out there was always a notice by the stile, and then you walked on down the lane and followed it round instead of cutting across the fields. There wasn't more than five minutes difference really.
With these directions Philip found his way easily enough. As Simon had foretold, the windmill was spinning round merrily in the strong wind and the water spurted resonantly into the cistern below. After a brief inspection Philip walked on towards the stile and saw, propped against it, a board on which 'Ware Bull' had been crudely daubed in tar. So he continued down the lane and, after a quarter-mile or so of its meanderings, found himself in Thorp's Spinney and in sight of the object of his exploration.
The pump stood just outside the spinney fence; and that neither it nor the trough below it had been in recent use was shown by the riot of nettles and burdock that surrounded both. Slipping under the fence Philip found, as he rose on the other side, something to engage his attention besides the pump. His steps had till now been directed westward, but he was now facing east and what he saw there did not please him. The sky above Thorp's Rise was inky black, and as he gazed on it in surprise there was a glint of distant lightning. He also became suddenly aware that the westerly wind had dropped and that the scene before him lay wrapt in a stillness of expectancy. Snugly abed, with sheets to cover his eyes and pillow-ends to smother his ears, Philip did not bother about thunderstorms; but outdoors and all alone he found himself in fear of one. His first impulse was to bolt home and leave the pump uninspected; but his second thought, prompted by self-respect, was to pay it hastened attention before he ran. His nerves were, therefore, in a state of high tension and apprehension when he grabbed hold of the handle and worked it jerkily up and down. This was not easy, for the bearings had rusted, and at the fourth or fifth downstroke the plunger came out with a rattle and the shaft jammed.
At this moment there grated on Philip's ear a most horrible and unearthly sound. Frozen in stark fright he was unable even to lift his hands to his ears to keep out the awful moaning that seemed to proceed now from the spout of the pump and now from the very ground beneath his feet. It was a hideous ululation, expressive of abysmal pain and despair, and how long it continued Philip was never able to tell. It might have been a matter of seconds or of minutes; to him it was a timeless agony. What released him from its spell was a clap of not very distant thunder. With a quick dive beneath the rail of the fence he dashed back into the lane. Two things only impinged themselves on his numbed senses as he raced along. One was that the bull, after the manner of cattle, kept pace with him on its side of the dividing hedge; and the other was that the windmill had ceased to turn for lack of wind. He noticed these irrelevancies as in a dream.
But although insensitive to other external impressions Philip was already turning a problem in his mind. What should he tell, if anything, of his horrible experience? The truth was plainly incredible. Edgar would not merely disbelieve but laugh. He must either keep silence altogether about his afternoon's expedition or pretend that it had passed off without incident. Before he had arrived at a conclusion he had reached the potting-shed and heard himself hailed by Simon from within.
'What? Back already! Why, good gracious, Master Philip, what be the matter? You're as white as chalk. Don't tell me as you forgot what I said and have been chased by the bull?'
Philip jumped at the explanation thus suggested. Invention was always pleasanter than suppression, and Edgar would envy the fictitious adventure.
'Why, yes!' he answered. 'I stupidly forgot on the way back, and had to run for it. Luckily, I found a hole in the hedge.'
Simon's manifest admiration of this brevity showed Philip that a laconic touch would serve also in imparting the lie to Edgar. As he left the walled garden a crash of thunder made him run towards the short-cut to the Hall which lay across a footbridge over the river. Rain had already begun to fall in large ominous drops when he discovered that the bridge gate was locked and that he must needs go round by the drive; a detour which resulted in his being soaked to the skin before he arrived at the porch. There was no shelter en route against a shower of tropical heaviness. It had hailstones in it too, and was shiveringly cold.
Edgar found his brother very poor company at supper that evening. He evinced no interest whatever in descriptions of Penchester Cathedral, and very little more in the mysterious disappearance of Lenny Gurscall, the village idiot, about which all sorts of strange tales and rumours were current in the servants' hall. Nor was Philip's account of his escape from the bull such as to excite or amuse. The fact was that the hideous reality of the experience which he was suppressing prevented him from giving to the fictitious taurine encounter any sufficient veneer of verisimilitude. Beginning the meal with mere lack of appetite he ended it with a positive feeling of nausea.
Coming in with Lady Redlaw to bid both boys good night his mother quickly saw that all was not well with the younger. A clinical thermometer confirmed her apprehensions by recording a temperature of a-hundred-and-two. Philip was therefore put promptly to bed and Edgar removed to a separate room.
'Not,' Mrs Falmer explained, 'that I suspect anything infectious, but one can't be too careful. Running away from that bull must have made the boy hot, and then on top of it he got caught in that icy downpour. He's probably got a chill.'
So, indeed, it appeared; for, in spite of a hot-water bottle, Philip was taken with shivers and passed a night far from peaceful either for himself or for those in the adjoining bedrooms. The reader may be left to guess for himself the nature of the dreams that caused him to wake up, screaming, not less than three times in twice as many hours.
It is not the purpose of this tale to curdle the reader's blood or make his flesh creep by presenting Philip's dreams in horrific detail. For a proper understanding of the trouble that temporarily overwhelmed him after his shell-shock in 1918 it is, however, necessary to sketch the development of what might be called the pump motif in his subconsciousness. The trouble indubitably arose from the fact that neither of his parents, excellently kind as both were, was sufficiently sympathetic or appreciative of childish fears and imaginings to encourage confidences between him and them on such subjects. In conversation with his brother, moreover, Philip was studious to avoid any appearance of juniority such as might lead Edgar to patronise him. The consequences were that he kept the unpleasant episodes of Tarrington churchyard, the mill-pond ram and Thorp's Spinney religiously to himself; that his secretive repression bred recurrent remembrances of the incidents in his dreams; and finally, after his shell-shock, a critical condition of neurosis.
At his preparatory school he was nicknamed 'Screamer', and often awoke from his nightmare with a cake of soap in his mouth. This treatment proved successful in putting a stop to his habit of actual yelling and saved him from later persecution in the big dormitories of Winchingham where a tooth-jug of cold water was accepted as the only remedy for even loud snoring.
The common source of all his dreams lay in the three episodes already recounted, and especially in that of Thorp's Spinney; though they differed and divagated in detail. Sometimes, for instance, the pump usurped the fictitious role of the bull as pursuer and came lunging, lurching, and clanking along behind him with its handle swinging viciously up and down in an effort to reach and strike him. Another night the pump would wear a foul bestial face, of which the spout formed a trunk that trumpeted at him. There were nights, too, when it was robed in a silk academic gown like that of the headmaster, and its handle became an arm brandishing a cane. There were hundreds more of such variations but each of them augmented rather than diminished the offensiveness of the nightmare. There appeared no rhyme or reason about its periodicity. Sometimes Philip would be without it for as long as three months at a stretch, and then suffer it for two or even three nights in succession.
He grew up into a man of strong character who was not going to let himself be beaten by a dream. He disciplined his sleeping self so well, in fact, that he would often succeed in waking himself up at the very outset of the familiar vision. It was not until shell-shock deprived him of his self-control that the nightmare proliferated and reproduced itself so incessantly as to threaten his sanity. In this tragic plight he was wisely counselled by a friend to consult Dr Hasterton, whose success with such cases was beginning at that time to become well known.
Philip took to this specialist at once, and in the course of general conversation at their first meeting it transpired that Hasterton had just returned from Sockstead, where the Hall and surrounding property had been acquired by his brother after Sir James Redlaw's death in 1913. The conversation then turned naturally to shooting and the doctor mentioned how he had brought down two high birds with a marvellous right and left just above Thorp's Spinney. To his own immense surprise Philip heard himself enquiring whether the pump were still there. Such an unusual question gave the doctor a cue, which he discreetly and cleverly followed up; with the result that in less than half an hour Philip had made a clean breast of all his silly pump, ram and ball-cock secrets. Finally, Hasterton suggested that, as he was running down to Sockstead again the next week-end but one, Philip might accompany him. If so, they could ramble round the old place together and possibly shoot a rabbit or two. To this suggestion Philip gladly agreed.
Arrived at Sockstead Hall, Philip found Hasterton's brother as companionable and easy to get to know as the doctor himself. After Mrs Hasterton and her daughter had gone to bed, the three men sat up late over the big log-fire in the smoking-room. Their talk turned on sport, and the doctor couldn't resist mention once more of his prowess at Thorp's Spinney.
'Talking of Thorp's Spinney,' said his brother, 'we made a rather gruesome discovery there the week before last. It landed us in a coroner's inquest too! No; it wasn't murder or anything of that sort. 'Death by Misadventure' was what they brought it in; but the odd thing is that the accident must have happened some twenty years ago. But perhaps this bores you?'
'Far from it! Please go on.'
'Well, about a fortnight ago my bailiff, Horton, suggested that we put the three fields on Thorp's Rise under roots, but Gumwell (the new man at Home Farm) wouldn't hear of it. They were such excellent pasture, he said, and he wanted to use the old cowsheds below the rise if only water could somehow be led to them. Only a few days ago he had come across the remains of an old pump by the spinney. Its suction pipe had been broken away and he could find no signs of a well. But there couldn't very well have been a pump there without one and he suggested that I should send a man down to dig about and see. So I sent old Comper, and it wasn't long before he came back to report the discovery of a large flat stone that rang hollow and looked a likely well-cover. The same afternoon Horton, Gumwell and I with two farm hands, in addition to old Comper, took down two crowbars and a rope, and sure enough we found a large pit under the stone. It wasn't a well though, but a large underground tank some fifteen feet in diameter. About seven feet from the top there opened into it a large circular brick culvert, large enough for a man to crawl through, and within five minutes or so we had traced its other end. It led from the big ditch above the Spinney, but the opening was so blocked with brambles and weeds that I had never noticed it when rabbiting. The downhill side of the ditch had scoured out a hundred yards higher up, and any water it brings down nowadays runs away on the other side of the wood. Consequently the tank was dry and I gave instructions for a ladder and lanterns to be brought down after breakfast next morning, so that we could inspect the condition of the brickwork. I was delayed on the morrow by the arrival of some important letters, and by the time I got to the Spinney they had already made their discovery of human remains at the bottom of the tank. I was there, however, when old Comper brought up the clue to their identity. It had once been a silver hunter watch, but now looked like a black pebble. On the inside lid at its back were engraved the words 'JUDE GURSCALL, 1859'.
'Well, to cut this long story short, Jude Gurscall's widow is still alive, and the remains were undoubtedly those of an idiot son. The unfortunate fellow is still well remembered in the village, for on reaching puberty he had shown signs of becoming dangerous and the question of getting him locked up had begun to be raised by neighbours when he unaccountably vanished and was seen no more. One of his madnesses had been to crawl down holes, and platelayers once had great difficulty in extricating him from the culvert under the railway embankment at Bemsford. He had undoubtedly met his end by creeping along the Thorp Spinney drain and falling down into the underground tank at its end, a good twenty-foot drop. If there was more than his own height of water in it he must have been drowned; if it was dry he probably broke his bones and perished of starvation. However loudly he called for help his cries could never have reached human ears.'
'That,' Philip interrupted, 'is where I'm sorry to say you're wrong: because they happened to reach mine!'
Dr Hasterton's concern as to the likely effect of his brother's narrative upon his patient had waxed greater as the tale unfolded. If he could have anticipated such a sinister dénouement he would certainly never have brought Philip to Sockstead. There was indeed a grave risk that what had just been told might cause a recrudescence of the young man's dreaming and re-establishment of subconscious obsessions. The doctor was therefore relieved to note that Philip's face, which he kept under constant but unaggressive attention, indicated neither distaste nor apprehension but only intense interest as the story proceeded. Philip's sudden interruption of it provided the opportunity for preventing the development of any tendency to self-reproach on his part for having, though unwittingly, left a man to his death. This opportunity the specialist promptly seized.
'And now, Falmer, please explain to my brother how a kind providence used your childish fears, and your disinclination to relate your experience in the spinney, to prevent discovery of the lunatic and the lifelong misery for him of incarceration in an asylum.'
Thus encouraged Philip gave a full and unrestrained account of that terrible episode in his boyhood. In doing so he showed neither repression nor self-criticism. His two auditors listened sympathetically and made it clear that Philip's conduct had been perfectly natural in a small boy and that they would have behaved similarly.
'As my brother remarked,' said his host at the conclusion of Philip's confession, 'your silence was providential. A return of the lunatic after his merciful disappearance would have been a tragedy. The first words that his old mother uttered when they told her of our discovery were 'Lord help us, but don't let him back here!' Only when she realised that he had been dead these twenty years past did she become maternal and proprietary. Then her imagination ran quickly to a fine funeral, and in this the whole of both Socksteads were with her. Her better-off neighbours contributed to the cost of an interment which could be fully enjoyed without necessity for any pretence of sorrow. A large crowd turned up for the ceremony and the Penchester Pioneer sent over a special reporter to take pictures. Favourite hymns were sung vociferously at the graveside and, as the country saying goes, a good time was had by all. Only the parson objected to the levity of the coffin being matched by that of its bearers. To cap all, they sent round a subscription list for 'a tombstone. It's in that desk now, together with a drawing of the design. Horton tells me that the inscription is to be partly in Latin. We'll have a look at it!'
The drawing was duly unrolled, and the proposed epitaph ran as follows:
In Memory of
LEONARD JOB GURSCALL
Born November 16, 1876
Died circa May 9, 1894
'Thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the
pit of corruption.'—Is. xxxviii, 17
'What can Horton have meant about the inscription being partly in Latin?' the doctor enquired.
'Well,' laughed Philip, 'one would hardly call "circa" English!'
Hasterton noted the laugh with satisfaction. It looked as though the cure might prove permanent and complete. So indeed it proved: but the specialist was slightly chagrined some weeks later to learn that his patient in no way ascribed it to his professional ministrations. 'Of course,' Philip declared, 'the nightmares were bound to stop as soon as they discovered and removed the presence in the well.'
In front of the thatched summer-house on a lawn over-looking rockery and water garden at Telbury Grange sat Rupert Madgeby and the two old college friends whom he had invited for the weekend. Of these, Richard Penham was a don at Oxbridge and Derek Singleton a literary and art critic on the staff of the Evening Review. Madgeby himself after being called to the Bar had come in for money on the death of an uncle in the steel trade, and now seasoned his limitless leisure with honorary secretarial work for a number of philanthropic causes. None of the three men was much over thirty, Singleton being the eldest at thirty-three and a half.
'It's the jasmine at the back of the summer-house,' Madgeby was saying; 'I've never known it so sweet as this year. It is a strange thing that so little trouble has been taken by horticulturists to develop or even to preserve the scent of flowers. I hear that, after sacrificing the scent of sweet peas to magnifications of size and accentuations of colour, they have been driven to the absurdity of introducing a special class at flower-shows for sweet Sweet Peas! Nor is it always the fault of the florist. Musk in recent years appears to have deodorised itself of its own initiative. No musk smells nowadays.'
At this point Penham interpolated the suggestion that gardeners and garden owners did not as a general rule care about the smell of flowers; otherwise the seedsman would cater for them quickly enough. There was, he said, no literature of scent as there was of colour and sound. Smell was the Cinderella of the senses.
'It isn't correct,' Singleton complained, 'to represent that there is no literature of scent. Oddly enough, I happen to be compiling an anthology on this very subject, and my citations are already so voluminous as to need pruning. Surely, Penham, you can't have forgotten that lovely passage in Bacon's essay, "Of Gardens"? I can quote you the first sentence: "And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes, like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air."
'Then there is that delightful bit about flower scents in A Hind in Richmond Park. I can't repeat the words from memory but Hudson's argument was that the odour of blossoms, although charged with memories, never lost the freshness and charm of novelty.'
'You wouldn't, I suppose, suggest,' Madgeby enquired, 'that memories ever created a scent?'
'No; but Alphonse Karr came very near to such a proposition in his Tour of my Garden. His statement was so unusual that it has stuck in my mind; this is what he wrote:
'"There often exhales from certain flowers something more and even better than perfume—I mean certain circumstances of life with which they are associated and with which they inseparably dwell in the mind, or rather in the heart, even as the hamadryads were not able to quit their oaks."'
'Is your anthology limited to what has been written about the scent of flowers?'
'Oh, no! The longest section will in fact be about smells of the sea. There's some very fine poetry, and prose too, about them.'
The exclamation seemed to have been jerked from Madgeby's mouth involuntarily, but he temporarily avoided interrogation by addressing the butler who had just arrived with the tea things.
'Parkins, when you fetch the hot toast will you be so good as to bring me the red notebook lying on top of the small bookcase in the morning-room? The red one, remember; there are several of them there but only one is red.'
'Very good, sir.'
'You were about to ask me, I think'—Madgeby turned-to his two friends—'why I said "Ugh!": so I've told Parkins to bring you the explanation. I never like being called a liar to my face though I've no objection to people disbelieving me behind my back. That's why I've written down a short account of an experience the actuality of which I can't very well expect anyone else to accept. To put it crudely, I was once haunted by a smell and the memory is not so pleasant as to make me want to talk about it. So you two can read my notes after tea, while I walk down to Merriman's to remind him about Mrs Gibson's geranium cuttings. Thank you, Parkins: yes, that's the right one. Sugar, Dick? Nor you either? What commendably economical guests!'
As soon as tea was finished and Madgeby had disappeared down the shrubbery path, Penham took up the notebook and, at a nod from Singleton, began to read aloud.
[from the Red Notebook: First Part]
I bought the water-colour drawing at Herbertson's in Redford Row for two guineas. It was the picture of some harbour or estuary; sea lavender, shingle, samphire and mud in the foreground; two rowing boats moored to a buoy in the middle distance, and a third boat with two oarsmen approaching from a ketch in midstream; beyond the channel a line of more mud, fields and hedges; and above them, between two clumps of elms, a distant spire; more distant still a glimpse of wooded downs. I had never heard the name of the artist (the picture was signed 'C. Withentake, 1841'), nor had old Herbertson. He had thought the drawing and colouring good, as did I, and had bought it on its own merits at a sale for two pounds. He had subsequently developed a dislike for it and would let me have it for that sum. 'Nonsense,' I replied, 'you would die of remorse when you tot up your accounts! I'll give you three guineas for it. In my opinion it's good.'
I was confirmed in this opinion when I saw the picture hanging in my rooms at Stanners Court, and Hollingdon, who dropped in for tea, congratulated me on the buy. 'It's got quite as much atmosphere in it,' he said, 'in spite of its accuracy of detail, as any of our modern impressionist stuff. The scene is almost unpleasantly alive.'
I am never a sound sleeper and in the early hours of next morning I went into my sitting-room for a book. The moment I opened the door my breath was caught by a strong, very strong, smell of the sea; not merely a fishy, shrimpy, muddy, weedy or salty smell, all of which odours can be sensed in isolation, but that unmistakable concentrated amalgam of them all that one inhales on the shore at low tide. I do not like this smell at any time, and always avoid a seaside holiday. I thought little of it now, however, as the window was open and I postulated a high tide in the Thames and a wind from the south-east. It struck me as strange to read in the newspaper next morning that tides were neap and the wind in the north, but I dismissed the matter from my mind as negligible, and would have forgotten all about it but for a repetition of the smell that very next night and during many succeeding nights. A professional writer might finds words adequately to describe the cumulative nastiness of these experiences. I will only say that I loathed the smell more and more and began to dread its recurrence. I understood now the full significance of the common phrase which predicates of a hateful thing that it stinks in one's nostrils. This filthy sea smell stayed and stank in mine.
I disliked it none the less for a nightmare that would often synchronise with it. In this dream I would find myself cabined in a very small metal compartment and seem to hear all around me the swishing and gurgling of water. A complete airlessness foreboded early suffocation. In a frenzy of despair I would try to beat my hands against the sides of my prison, only to find that they as well as my legs were securely tied with ropes. At this point, with a horrid jump of the heart, I would wake up in a cold sweat, and with the smell of the sea pungently around me.
I was beginning to mistrust my sanity, or at any rate, my ability to retain it, when my trouble was brought into perspective with the humdrum and commonplace by Mrs Durren. This lady is employed by Stanners Court Flats Limited under the impressive designation of Lady Supervisor of the Company's Residential Premises; but to all of us tenants she has always been just 'Mrs D'.
'Ferguson has been telling me of the smell that hangs about your sitting-room when he takes the coals up of a morning.'
'So he's noticed it too?'
'Yes, and I went this morning to see, or perhaps I should say, to smell, for myself. Mr Madgeby, there must be seaweed in the back of that new picture. That's where the smell comes from. Please have it opened up and the stuff taken out. My husband used to keep seaweed nailed onto a board and called it his barometer. He was seldom far out in his forecasts either, but I couldn't a-bear the smell it gave off, and this one's exactly the same.'
'But nobody would place seaweed behind a painting!'
'And why not? Quite likely it was the artist's keepsake from the beach where he drawed it. Anyway, there's no mistaking the smell, and if the seaweed isn't there we shall have to look somewhere else. But my nose, which is a sharp one, has traced it to that picture!'
[from the Red Notebook: Second Part]
As I anticipated, Mrs Durren was proved wrong. There was no seaweed nor anything else found at the back of the picture. Its unframing, however, disclosed some faint writing on the reverse of the drawing, which had been imperfectly erased and could without great difficulty be read as follows:
Who toils for us is our toilerman
And his lad our toiler boy;
If he boil not who is boilerman
Hie to our boiler boy:
So, hey, sing hey, for our boilerman
And hey for the boiler boy.
These lines struck me not merely as meaningless but as positively idiotic but, such is the perversity of the human brain, I could not get them out of my head.
At the time of which I am writing the comic operetta, Sailors Seven, was having its record run at the Golconda, and every guttersnipe in town was whistling the tune of that song which begins:
The bosun yelled at the cabin boy; Young son of a dog, roared be.
To this wretched tune the words on the back of the picture attached themselves in my involuntary imagination: it was a maddening combination! Nevertheless, it had an interesting development.
I was in the library of my club, where I thought myself alone, when, stepping down from a ladder with a book on Tudor Monuments in my left hand, I sang to myself softly and absentmindedly, to the comic opera tune, the words:
So hey, sing hey, for our boilerman
And hey for the boiler boy!
'Good heavens! who's that?'
Dropping the book in my surprise and turning round, I saw Aubrey Lenville staring at me from the writing-desk in the alcove.
'I'm sorry, Madgeby, to have startled you,' he said, 'but you gave me such a shock. Where on earth did you pick up that song you were singing; I mean the words?'
When I told him that I had found them at the back of a painting he grew more excited than ever.
'Do you know what they mean?'
'Certainly not,' I replied. 'They can't mean anything! The whole verse runs like this' (I repeated all six lines) 'and it's obviously tosh.'
'It may seem so to you, Madgeby, but by Jove I'm glad to have overheard you! There's history in it.'
'History in what?'
'In that verse! Let's get into these comfortable chairs and I'll explain. That's better. I wonder if you've yet seen any books in that "Sidelines of History" series that Goldenshaw's are publishing?'
'No; but I've read the Decade's review of the one on Lepers and Lunatics. It sounded interesting and I jotted it down on my library list.'
'Well, I've been commissioned to write the volume on Smugglers, and that's how I'm able to place your song and give it a meaning. It's part of an old smugglers' shanty, and I'll tell you all about it so far as my researches have gone so far.'
Lenville walked over to the desk where he had been writing, and came back with a large number of notes written on blue foolscap. After a minute or two's search he found the sheet he wanted.
'Here we are. This is my note, and I'll read it as it isn't too long: "In Thornychurch harbour the smugglers for some undiscovered reason called their leader 'the boiler-man' and the following verse is still known at Itchenham as the Smugglers' song:
Who coils our rope is coilerman
And his son our coiler boy;
If he boil who is our boilerman,
Beware his boiler boy:
Once ho! twice ho! for our boilerman;
Thrice ho! for our boiler boy.
'(A different version from yours, Madgeby, or maybe a second verse to it?) "Most of the gang lived on the Itchenham side but tradition has it that they landed their stuff across the water at Bosnor, where the Emstead and Thornychurch channels meet. A spit of shingle near their junction is still known as Boilerman's Hard. The trade appears to have prospered well into the Queen's reign when the leader, one Charles Wapentake—"'
Withentake, not Wapentake,' I found myself interrupting. 'What on earth—'
'Never mind, go on reading. I'll explain afterwards.'
'"One Charles Wapentake, agreed with the Customs House man at Itchenham to betray the whole business for a consideration but, before the bargain could be kept, Wapentake disappeared entirely from the vicinity, nor was he ever heard of again either there or anywhere else. The rest of the gang are believed to have transferred their activities to Graylingsea, where in the face of increased wariness on the part of the Customs the trade soon petered out. It became known after his mysterious disappearance that Wapentake had entered into an agreement with the Dean of Thornychurch to make certain drawings of the cathedral before commencement of its restoration." That finishes my note. It's only half the story of course, but it gives the meaning of the lines you were singing. I don't suppose that I shall ever succeed in finding out anything more about the Bosnor gang; I pumped my local sources dry.'
'You've certainly provided a context for my song, but hardly a meaning! Now, if you can find time to come round with me to my rooms in Stanners Court I would like to show you the picture on which the verse was scribbled. The painter signed himself as C. Withentake: that's why I interrupted you just now.
'You can come? Well, that's splendid. Let's be getting along.'
Twenty minutes later we both stood opposite the picture in my room. A twitching of Lenville's facial muscles belied the apparently calm deliberation with which he proceeded to examine it through my magnifying glass.
'You're right about the name; it's certainly Withentake, and the drawing is just as certainly a view of Thornychurch harbour. There's no mistaking Thornychurch spire. It must, I think, have been sketched from Bosnor beach. What, by the way, is that thing which the boats are moored to?'
'Isn't it a buoy?'
'Perhaps so; but it's such a strange shape, more cylindrical than conical.'
'Yes,' I politely agreed, 'more like a boiler than a buoy.'
Lenville suddenly gripped my arm, so violently that it hurt.
'You've got it, Madgeby; you've got it, by Jove.'
'Why, the boiler buoy, of course! Sing, hey, for the boiler boy! It's all as clear as a pikestaff. This was the smuggler's buoy, and the receiver who kept rendezvous by it and landed their smugglings they must have called their boiler-man. The fire which he lit on the shore would be a signal of safety only if it were without a cauldron or kettle; or, in the words of your song, if he boiled not who was boilerman. Nor were signals given at Bosnor only. There's other stuff very typical of known smugglers' codes in the rest of the verse. A man and a boy at work in the fields by Dittering Gap or coiling, ropes on Bulver Quay, would have indicated some item of intelligence. There may, too, have been some significance in the number of Heys! or Ho's! to be shouted. One can't hope to establish the exact details now, of course; but, thanks to you, Madgeby, the main puzzle is solved.'
'Possibly,' I replied. 'But I'm now going to tell you something which has been worrying me and which, I fear, will prove unexplainable.'
Lenville listened critically but not incredulously to my narration of the recurrent smell and nightmare. He felt sure, he said, that both must bear some relation to the picture, and thereupon fell silent and pensive over a whisky-and-soda which I had poured out for him.
'What are you doing next weekend?' he at length enquired.
'Nothing particular; why?'
'Because I want you to run down with me to Thornychurch on Friday evening, and we can get back on Monday morning. That will give us two whole days to have a look round Bosnor. The farmhouse there has been derelict for a long time and there's nobody living on the headland, but I can get two men to row us over from Itchenham and lend a hand.'
'Lend a hand at what?'
'But what do you expect to find there?'
'What you've been dreaming about: a narrow metal chamber, airless and dark, surrounded by a gurgling and swishing of water. In other words, the boiler buoy. There's no port authority in Thornychurch, and where the buoy once floated there it must have since sunk. You can still see the one that used to mark the Stocker Shoal if you look over a boat's edge there at low water in spring tides. If we should succeed in fording it, it might be possible to have it opened. From the words of those two verses I guess that the inside may well have been used as the Smugglers' cache. Anyhow, the clue's worth following up. Will you come?'
I promised to do so.
'By the way,' Lenville concluded, 'we shall need to have this picture with us in order to get our bearings. So take it out of its frame, will you, and pack it at the bottom of your suitcase where it won't get crumpled.'
[from the Red Notebook: Third Part]
When we landed in our boat from Itchenham on the spit of muddy shingle off Bosnor known as Boilerman's Hard the tide was still on the ebb and there was an hour or so to go before low water. Lenville walked straight up the pebbly strip towards the foreshore, carrying in his hand the portfolio in which I had placed the Withentake picture. On reaching the line of sea lavender and dried seaweed that marked the season's high water-mark he took the drawing out and compared it with the actual scene before him. A puzzled look quickly crept into his face. In the picture Thornychurch spire was exactly over the water end of the hard, where the boats lay moored to the buoy. Our own boat, now occupying an identical position, was completely out of line with the spire! Lenville was explaining this discrepancy to me when one of our boatmen came up: a man named Burdenshaw, who, having served as a yacht-hand in his younger days, now made a comfortable living by looking after many of the small craft at Itchenham, which their owners found time to sail only at weekends.
'It's plain to me, sir,' he politely struck in, 'that this here droring were done afore the Yardle creek came to be shifted after the storm of seventy-two, when the spring tides spilled over Tilsea Bank and flooded all the Brinsley flats. The old sluice, way back there where you see them gulls, were washed away when the water as had got in had to make its way out again at change of tide; and the creek as it now lays follows the straight cut as was then made. The water cut through the old hard, it did; and that's the old hard all right what we sees in that picture.'
'But you told me over at Itchenham,' Lenville objected, 'that this was Boilerman's Hard.'
'Well, sir, so it be and so it bean't. After the Bosnor levels were reclaimed (and a mort of money was lost when the sea broke in again) farmer Betterman started grazing his cattle off them, and it were he as made the present hard with shingle from Haylesworth bar. Betterman's Hard it should rightly be called, but the name of the old got stuck onto the new and Boilerman's Hard is what it is called by.'
'So that's how it is!' Lenville said with a recovered cheerfulness. 'Well, now we've got to find the end of the old hard, and it shouldn't be difficult. You two must now go back to the boat, while I walk along the shore till I get Thornychurch spire exactly half-way between those two clumps of elms, as it is in the picture. Then I want you to row slowly along at the edge of the muds till I give you a shout. That shout will mean that you've reached a spot on the direct line between me and the spire, and that's where you'll want those poles we've brought. Just go on prodding the bottom till you hit on something hard; then stake it with a pole and shout for me. While you're prodding don't forget to keep an eye on me, or you'll soon drift off the line. As long as I keep my arms down you can take it that you're all right, but if I hold out either arm you must pole the boat towards that side until I drop it again. Is that quite clear?'
It was; so Burdenshaw and I rejoined the other man in the boat and, as soon as Lenville shouted, commenced our prodding. We had prodded for a long half-hour and the stench of the mud, which reminded me unpleasantly of the smell in my nightmare, had begun to make me feel sick when Burdenshaw asked what it might be as the other gentleman expected for to find?'
'An old buoy, I believe.'
'Then it ain't no good us prodding here in the water for what's been high and dry five miles away for more nor thirty year! The old buoy be up at Appleham under the sea wall; as I would have told the other gentleman if he had asked after it: but he never did, did he, Bill?'
'He sure didn't.'
I bade them row to the new hard and had soon explained the position to Lenville, who bitterly cursed old Dingleby, the landlord of the Crown and Sceptre at Itchenham, for not having told him all he might have done. We must now, he added, go straight to Appleham.
This as it happened was easy enough, for the wind was blowing strongly up the harbour from the south-west, and under a small lugsail we were soon running before it at a good speed and, on passing Itchenham, saw that the yachts at their moorings were already swinging to the flood tide. This was also in our favour for, by the time we had reached Never Point, we found sufficient water for us to row right up the channel to Birdquay, whence a walk of little more than ten minutes brought us to Appleham sea wall.
When I caught sight of the object of our search I felt sure that the boatmen must adjudge us lunatics. In this, however I was wrong, for I soon realised that their sense of local importance vested everything in Thornychurch harbour, or near it, with an interest that needed no explanation, much less apology. The object might once have been an actual boiler: if so, the inspection plate had been removed many years ago, and I found what might perhaps be the remains of it quite near by. The resultant hole in the cylinder, into which the plate would once have fitted, had been worn and widened by corrosion and rust into a large and irregular aperture. Inside there lay a drift of sand, dried sea-weed, crab-shells and other wind-borne rubbish; for the boiler lay above the level of ordinary tides. With the help of a spade, Lenville satisfied himself that it contained nought else, and we then started on a long and laborious row back to Itchenham against both wind and tide. Having at length arrived there, I noticed that Lenville paid both boatmen much more than the amount agreed upon, presumably by way of compensation for the bad temper which he had exhibited on the way back.
After a polite 'thank you!' the younger of the two (Bill, whose surname I never got) mumbled something about old Dingleby's father having been sexton up at Appleham before they built the new church, and about an uncle having kept the 'Crab and Lobster' at Birdquay. With this parting intimation the two made off and, turning to Lenville, I suggested that we might turn into the 'Crown and Sceptre' for some food and drink as well as for a questioning of old Dingleby.
'If he knows more than he's already told me, he's a damned old scoundrel,' Lenville assented, 'but we'll make sure.'
[from the Red Notebook: Fourth Part and Postscript]
'We didn't never expect to see you back here so soon, Mr Lenville,' Old Dingleby remarked, as he set before us the beer, bread and cheese which we had ordered, 'for there hasn't been none of your history-making here since you went away, and you sucked us as dry as an orange, you did, over them smuggler stories.'
'I'm not too sure about that,' rejoined Lenville, 'though you swore that you'd told all you know about the Bosnor gang.'
'But you said nothing at all about the buoy which lies under Appleham sea wall, did you?'
'Ah! then I didn't tell you about that, didn't I? Well now, if that isn't strange! But some days I remember and some days I forget, though most days and most ways I mind well what were told me by my father. He never told me nothing that weren't worth minding, didn't my father.'
'And what did he tell you about that buoy?'
'That it were broke away from its mooring off Bosnor in the big tides before Jubilee and were drifted up under Appleham wall, where it now lays.'
'Nothing, except that it were opened up by Squire Marcroft and Parson Hayden and nothing found but mud and bones.'
'What did they expect to find?'
'Something maybe as might be more comfortably stowed in their own insides! It were a smugglers' buoy, you mind.'
'Ah, yes; I see: and what then?'
'Well, my father said as the Chief Constable come down one day out of Thornychurch; and bodies be one thing, he says to the Squire, and bones be another. What is took out as bones may have been put in as bones, he says; and them as finds can lose. So Squire Marcroft was for chucking them into the creek; but Parson said as they must be given benefit of the doubt, and buried them as you come to the old churchyard stile; and if ever they belonged to a Christian body, he said, they could climb over easy at the doom.'
At this point, Lenville called for two more mugs of beer and some more cheese.
'I wish, Landlord, you'd told me all this before. It would have saved my friend and me a long journey and a wasted morning. I suppose that your father never told you of any suspicion he may have had about those bones?'
'Not exactly suspicions, but he and my uncle, as had the "Crab and Lobster", this side of Birdquay, used to argue as how they might have belonged to Smuggler Withentake. It's in the Dean's books that Withentake took an order to make drawings of the cathedral, and afore he could do that he must need get out of his old trade. But, asks my uncle, would his mates over at Bosnor make him free? No, answers my father; that they wouldn't: for why, he knew their secrets. Therefore, my father and uncle agreed, he must have gone to the Customs and offered to do what would at the same time rid him of his bad company and fetch him money for his paints and what not. Then, hearing as he were about to play Judas on them, his mates would have set on him and shut his body, alive or dead, into the old buoy. That was what my father would say, and my uncle too; and my father used to add that it were his honest hope as they killed their man first, for to be shut up in that boiler without light or drink or food, and to hear the water gurgling and licking the outside—'
'That's enough!' I interrupted, and hurried outside, leaving Lenville to explain that I was of a somewhat nervous disposition and to settle the account. Lenville, very considerately, talked of other subjects all the way back to London; but as we parted at the railway terminus and were shaking hands, he smilingly, instead of 'Goodbye', said 'Q.E.D.'
17th September, 1899
Postcript.—Since writing the above notes, I have not once been incommoded by the smell or by the nightmare therein described. Mrs Durren, to her great satisfaction, traced the former to the use of seaweed in his bath by the tenant of the rooms immediately below mine. He had it sent up twice a week by rail from the south coast and found that it relieved his rheumatism.
Penham and Singleton were still discussing scents and dreams—both generally and with particular reference to what they had just read in the notebook—when they saw their host returning by the grass path between the herbaceous borders and carrying under his arm a picture-frame.
'I thought,' Madgeby explained, 'that you might like to see the actual painting about which I wrote in those notes. I keep it locked up in a cupboard nowadays, because of its associations; although, here at Telbury, we're seventy miles from the coast and unlikely to catch any whiffs from the sea! I think that you'll agree as to its being a good piece of work.'
After a careful and critical examination, for which purpose Madgeby propped the frame against the back of a garden seat, both guests assented, Singleton enthusiastically. All three men thereafter reclined once more in the comfortable deck-chairs and lazily accepted the drinks and smokes which Parkins brought round on a tray. The evening was warm and windless and conducive to reverie rather than to argument. The night-scented stocks in the bed round the summerhouse began to add their fragrance to that of the jasmine—a blend which would have been sickly but for the admixture of tobacco smoke. Suddenly however the closeness of the atmosphere seemed to be lifted, and a rustle in the silver poplar on the lawn was followed by a whispering in the maple above the summer-house. A number of yellowish leaves fell fluttering down and, so nearly inaudible as to be felt rather than heard, came the rumble of distant thunder. The three friends raised their eyes simultaneously to the sky overhead, which, however, gave no hint of rain or storm. Something nevertheless began to impinge on a sense other than those of sight and hearing. Faint, but definite and unmistakable, and as though it came from an infinite distance, there was wafted into their nostrils the smell of the sea. Penham and Singleton glanced at each other as if for mutual verification, then at the picture on the seat, and, lastly, at their host.
For a few moments, Madgeby continued to sip his whisky-and-soda in silence. Then, setting down the glass carefully on a stool by his side, he turned to his friends with a smile of enquiry. 'I wonder,' he said, 'whether either of you have ever had personal experience of auto-suggestion?'
Fate, poaching as ever on preserves of human enterprise, had fired two barrels at young Alec Judeson. Malaria first got him down; dysentery prevented recovery. The board of doctors that yesterday examined him would, as they had warned him, in due course certify not merely that he must go home forthwith, but also that he must never return to the tropics. The days of his rubber planting in Malaya were numbered.
The medical examination had been at Penyabong, the chief town of Senantan, and Alec was now on his way back to the estate at Sungei Liat to pack up and to say goodbye. Tonight he would stay at the little resthouse on the summit of Bukit Kotak Pass, and leave the remaining forty-one miles to be driven in the cool of the early morning. Backing his two-seater car into the resthouse stable he suddenly realised how bitterly he would miss the touch of its steering-wheel and the feel of that patch on the driving seat where the stump of a fallen cheroot had burned through the leather. Nevertheless he must get out a quick advertisement for its sale if he was to scrape together enough dollars for his passage.
A zig-zag of earthen steps led from the stable up to the small plateau on which the resthouse was perched. Empty beer bottles, sunk neck-downward into the soil for half their length, formed the vertical front of each step and so protected the stair from scour or detrition. On either side, amid the knee-deep lalang grass, sprawled straggly bushes of red shoe-flower or hibiscus. How weak he had become was brought home to Alec by painful inability to mount the steps without several stops and waits. 'Those damned doctors were just about right!' he muttered crossly, slashing with his cane at a stem of hibiscus that slanted across the path.
The action dislodged, and brought rustling and fluttering to the ground at his feet, a large green mantis. Uncannily swivelling its triangular head the insect fixed him with protuberant black eyes and challengingly crooked its long forelegs in the posture that has earned for the species the epithet of 'praying'. He flicked it distastefully with his stick into the gutter, climbed the few remaining steps to the resthouse verandah, and there sank heavily into one of the long rattan chairs.
A whisky-and-soda helped him regain his breath before, taking a packet of letters from his pocket, he drew out one from a blueish, crested envelope, unfolded it, and began to scan its contents attentively. The embossed address was: 'Saintsend, Dedmans Reach, Tillingford', and the manuscript below it ran as follows:
MY DEAR ALEC—I am greatly distressed by the news of your breakdown in health. You will remember my dubiety as to your physical fitness for work in a tropical climate and my unavailing attempts to dissuade you therefrom. This letter, however, is written in no spirit of 'I told you so', but repeats my former invitation to come and live with me here at Tillingford. Your father (and I state this with certainty, as he told me so only ten days before he died) would have approved. It is indeed obviously right that you should get to know, and to regard as 'home', the property that you will come into sooner rather than later; for I am now 67 and do not need a medico to tell me that I've got a dicky heart. So do come along, and if you want to bring with you any of your oriental paraphernalia, there's plenty of room here for its exposition or stowage.
P.S.—You will find several improvements at Saintsend. The Conservancy people refused to let me root out those pollarded willows from the river bank; so I have blotted out all view of them by continuing the garden wall round to where the boathouse used to be. This I have pulled down, filled in the dyke, and built instead a decent-sized studio, music-room and library—my 'Athenaeum', I call it.
'Yours avuncularly!' 'Exposition or stowage of oriental paraphernalia!' 'Athenaeum', indeed! Alec winced as these phrases stung him into remembrance of Uncle Matthew's pomposity and humourless affectation. And why, in heaven's name, wall off the old willows and thereby lose those lovely glimpses of river? Well, in due course (a half-conscious euphemism, this, on Alec's part for after his uncle's death), in due course the wall could be pulled down again; and a temporary circumvallation would only in small degree detract from the amenities of an exceedingly comfortable and commodious residence. Amused that his thoughts should thus run in terms of a house agent's advertisement Alec mentally registered acceptance of his uncle's offer. He would telegraph to the old man as soon as his sailing date was fixed; but, for the moment, he felt it sufficient to clinch his decision with another whisky-and-soda.
As he lay in the long chair, sipping it, there clumsily alighted on the verandah rail beside him another mantis; or, maybe, the same one as before, for the beady stare and aggressive genuflexion were identical. Making a trigger of right forefinger and thumb, he flipped the creature off its perch into the garden and, in doing so, turned his eyes towards the sunset. This was of that jaundiced kind for which. Malays have the ugly word mambang. Not merely the western sky but the whole vault was dyed an ugly stagnant yellow. Hills and jungle seemed to soak in it, and Alec remembered that, on such an evening, Malay children would be kept indoors: an understandable, albeit superstitious, precaution.
Five minutes or so later, the yellow glare having dimmed with a suddenness reminiscent of opera, the resthouse-keeper lit the lamp which hung above the dry-rotten table whereon he would shortly lay supper. Numerous patches of iron-mould gave the badly laundered cloth a resemblance to maps of an archipelago, and so turned Alec's thoughts to Java and to the set of shadow-show silhouettes which he had bought on holiday there eighteen months ago. He had, indeed, already been twice reminded of them this evening by the praying mantis, the disproportion of whose neck and arms to the rest of its body was as great as in the case of the shadow puppets. In their case this disproportion was of course necessary in order that the jointed arms should be long enough for the showman to jerk them by their slender rods into the attitudes and gesticulations demanded by his miniature drama. A marionette is manipulated by strings from above, a shadow silhouette by spindles from below; the one being pulled and the other pushed much in the same way, Alec cynically reflected, as weak or obstinate characters need pulling or pushing in real life. He would certainly take these shadow figures home with him, as being the only 'oriental paraphernalia', to use his uncle's expression, that he possessed. They had been cut in thick buffalo hide and elaborately painted in gold, silver, crimson, saffron, brown and indigo; but on one side alone, the other being left polished but bare: for a shadow drama is watched from both sides of a stretched sheet—on one side, spectators see the painted surfaces of the figures against the white cloth and in the full glare of footlights;' on the other, the clear-cut shadows of them projected through the cloth. From neither side is the showman visible, for he operates between two parallel screens of palm-leaf immediately beneath the sheet.
The meal, over which Alec Judeson indulged in these Javan memories, was not, for dietetic reasons, that prepared for him by the resthouse-keeper, whose menus depended for edibility on liberal libations of Worcestershire sauce. His hostess at Penyabong had prudently provided him with a hamper of more palatable, and less dangerous, fare. Nevertheless he was too tired to eat more than a few mouthfuls of each dish; and, before many minutes passed, he gave up the effort and went straight from table to bed.
As he undressed a slight movement of the mosquito-net aroused his curiosity; so, before taking off his shoes, he got up from the chair to investigate. To his annoyance he discovered, for the third time that evening, a mantis. So strong was the grip of its hind legs on the curtain that its head and neck were thrust toward him, at right-angles to the body. Neglectful of their sharp spurs Alec seized the waving forelegs and was sharply pricked for his rashness. This angered him. Savagely grabbing it by its back and wing-cases, he tore the creature roughly from the net and held its head over the smoking chimney of the lamp. As the black, starting eyes became incinerated into opaque grey, he heard a sizzle and a crackle before he threw the still-wriggling insect to the floor and crushed it under foot. Next moment he was hating himself for this cruelty. Walking to the window he stood for some seconds listening to the stridulation of cicadas in the jungle; then spat into the darkness and returned to his undressing. A few minutes later he parted the mosquito curtains and crept into bed.
Out of weakness and exhaustion he was soon in the indeterminate borderland between waking and sleeping. Pictures passed before his closed eyes of Saintsend garden and he found himself wondering whether, after all, Uncle Matthew had not been right about those pollarded willows at the river edge. Were they not, perhaps, a little too like those gruesomely vitalised trees in Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Peter Pan? There certainly seemed to be a group of shadow-show figures in the tree to the left of the sundial, and there appeared, too, to be something waving at him from among the spindly boughs of the one on the right. Then of a sudden they parted, and the thing looked out at him 'O hell! That bloody mantis again!' He had cried this aloud and thereby woken himself out of his half-sleep. Was the wretched fever on him again? Having lit the bedside candle and rummaged in a suitcase for his thermometer, he took his temperature. Normal. Nerves, then, must have caused his dream, and small wonder after that episode of the mantis! To guard against further nightmare by forcing all nonsensical fancies out of his brain, he now set it to visualise Saintsend with all the accuracy and detail of which his memory was capable. This stern mental exercise, which within half an hour induced a sound sleep, enabled him also to contemplate, with pleasurable anticipation, various improvements to house and garden which it would be possible to make—in due course.
Nine weeks later a taxi from Tillingford pulled up at the steps of Saintsend. Young Judeson had scarcely opened its door before he heard the voice of his uncle raised in ponderous salutation.
'Alec, my dear boy, how splendid to see you again! You must excuse a rising septuagenarian for not coming down the steps to greet you. The legs are willing but the heart is weak! Come along up and let Larkin attend to your impedimenta. What? only two cabin trunks? I thought you Eastern nabobs travelled with more than that!'
'Nabobs may do so, but not a broken-down planter!' frowned the nephew as he paid off the taxi-man and turned to mount the steps. 'Why, uncle, how fit and young you're looking!'
'Looks are liars, I'm afraid, my dear boy. Soon falls the rotting leaf that autumn gilds: that's from one of my own poems. Now, if you hand over your keys to Larkin, he'll show you upstairs and help you unpack. They're putting you in the south wing, where you'll enjoy a safe refuge from avuncular intrusion. No more going up and down stairs for the victim of myocarditis! Come and see the Athenaeum as soon as you've tidied yourself up, and don't take too long about it, because our new neighbour at Sennetts, Miss Scettall, has promised to drop in to tea, and you will like to have a look round before she comes.'
Alec highly approved the bedroom and adjoining sitting-room assigned to him. The windows of both gave on to the riverside, and he could look over the new wall and the willow-tops on to the marshland and wood beyond. In the right foreground rose a whitewashed gable of the new studio or music-room, which looked far too nice and unpretentious to be dubbed an Athenaeum. In order that it might be above flood-level, it had been built on a raised terrace and was approached by a ramp of masonry leading from a french window in the library. Steps had thus been avoided at either end, and the rough stonework was already ornamentally studded with patches of saxifrage and wall-rue. It would be a dangerous passage to fall from, and Alec found himself considering whether the addition of a rail or low parapet might not be an improvement—in due course.
A deferential cough woke him from this reverie, and, turning round, he saw Larkin standing in the doorway.
'Pardon me asking, sir, but would you be wanting them two parcels as is atop of the brown trunk to be undone? Both of 'em seems to be stuck up with sealing-wax, like.'
'Oh no, thank you, Larkin; just put them, as they are, into that big drawer below the cupboard. Be careful not to shake the square cardboard box: it's got some rather rare and valuable insects inside it.'
Larkin seemed greatly interested at this. 'Then who'll be attending to their feeding, sir, if I may ask it? My young Tom, now, 'e's fair nuts on caterpillars. Hentomolology, the master names it in 'is school report; but, "Tom," I says, "don't you never be putting them bug 'utches again in my pantry, for they ain't 'ealthy; not about the 'ouse."'
'No; but mine aren't alive, Larkin! They're stuffed specimens, like you see in a museum. The fellow in the dispensary on our rubber estate gave them to me when I was saying goodbye. I had been telling him about an experience with what they call a praying mantis. You tell young Tom, next time he has a half-holiday, to pop in here, and I'll show him all sorts of queer things—scorpions, centipedes, mantises, and what not. A bit of a surprise for him after butterflies and moths!'
Having dismissed Larkin with this invitation for Tom, Alec brushed his hair with unusual attention, for the benefit of Miss Scettall, and started to go downstairs. He walked slowly and musingly. His uncle's appearance had very greatly shocked him by its promise of longevity. The cheeks were fuller than he remembered them and positively ruddy. The hair too was but little greyer, if at all, and the eyes gave no hint of weakening. Matthew, in short, looked good for another ten years at least; whereas during the voyage home from Malaya Alec had been nursing the prospect of a brief spell of nepotal attention being speedily rewarded by grateful benedictions from an early deathbed. After all, had not his uncle indicated as much in his letter of invitation? But not only did he now appear in deplorably rude health, but in five minutes of conversation had paraded all those exasperating affectations that would render any long companionship with him intolerable. Those bleats of 'my dear boy' and 'your poor old uncle'! That periphrastic avoidance of the first person singular; a maddening habit copied, perhaps, from those among the Anglican hierarchy who address their children in God as 'your Bishop'!
Alec was by now at the foot of the staircase and in the long corridor leading to the library. On either side hung paintings in oils of his grandfather's hunters and dogs, heavily and gaudily framed. The names were on plaques beneath: Caesar, Hornet, Buster, Ponto, and the rest. Alec made a mental note for their removal in due course; and then he suddenly frowned. With his uncle in such good trim, how could his promised inheritance be expected any longer to eventuate in due course. It was bound to be overdue: damnably overdue!
As if to corroborate this anticipation, Matthew Judeson emerged at this moment from the library door, and in full bleat. 'What, down again already? Good on you, my boy; quick work! Now be careful of this rug; it's apt to slip on the marble floor and have you over. Now one goes out through the french window and here we are, you see, on a ramp or isthmus; no steps to negotiate, just a gradual incline. And this is the door of the Sanctum Sanctorum! Open it, Alec; and please not to say that you are disappointed!'
Alec certainly was not. He was wondering in fact how so fussy and finical a man could have evolved so restful a room. The plain large open fireplace, the unstained panelling, unceiled barrel roof, grand piano in unpolished oak, red Dutch tiles and rough cord carpets, deep broad leathered chairs—all were right and pleasing.
'One tries,' his uncle resumed, 'to do a good turn to friends whenever occasion offers. The Scettalls are poorly off, so I called in young Alfred for a fee to help with the designs and furnishing. He would already have set up as an architect by now, but for his having got mixed up in a business of which his sister is best left in ignorance. He can rely on his present benefactor, of course, not to tell her.'
'What do you mean by his present benefactor?'
'Why, this old uncle of yours: who else?'
'Well, this unfortunate young nephew of yours...' Alec had thus begun in bantering imitation of the old man's circumlocution when Larkin appeared, not obtrusively but withal importantly, in the doorway and announced: 'Miss Scettall'.
At her finishing school the lady who now entered had been known among the other girls as 'Mona Lisa'. Her likeness to Leonardo's famous picture had grown rather than lessened with her years, and renders any detailed description of her appearance unnecessary. It need only be said that she was fully conscious of the likeness, dressed to the part, and expected all the attention that it demanded. During the conversation that followed her introduction to Alec, although politeness required her to address her remarks mainly to her host, she held the younger man's interest and attention by beck or smile and was gratified to find him all eyes and ears. The tea talk was suitably trivial, but two bits of it must be recounted as bearing upon later developments. The first related to a review in the Tillingford Gazette of Matthew Judeson's locally printed Second Posy of Poesy, wherein it was opined that the best compliment payable to the second posy was that nobody could have suspected its authorship to be identical with that of the first.
'Now tell us, Mr Judeson,' Mona Lisa commanded with a shake of the forefinger, 'just how you feel about that criticism. Are you conscious of having changed, or shall we say "developed", so greatly? Does your old self know your new self? Or vice versa?'
The question was clearly distasteful to Uncle Matthew; for he answered with a certain acidity that he would ask his nephew to read the books, of which Larkin had already been instructed to place author's presentation copies by his bedside, and to pass judgment. He could not help feeling that his first 'posy' had been much underrated. Only forty-three copies had in fact been sold.
That ended discussion on this topic; but after desultory talk of weather, crops and the new vicar at Fenfield the conversation took its second turn of relevance to our story.
'By the way, Mr Judeson,' said Miss Scettall in low confidential tones, 'your friend spoke to us again last night.'
'Which? Saint or the corpse?'
'Well—both or either; you see, our saint was the corpse!'
After this enigmatic utterance Miss Scettall turned to Alec and, raising her voice, continued: 'Now let me warn you before it is too late, Mr Alec, not to allow your uncle to interest you too much in his spiritualism. It isn't always quite comfortable, and I'm glad that he's got your company now in this old house. Good gracious, six o'clock! I must be off at once or Alfred will go without his supper, for we've no cook these days.'
As they escorted her to the front door, Alec wondered how earlier in the day he could have thought his uncle looking well. Perhaps it was the gloom of the corridor, but his face now appeared drawn and grey.
'Alec, my dear boy,' he said as soon as the guest was gone, 'the excitement of your arrival has quite knocked me over.' (Alec noted this first allusion to himself as 'me'.) 'I shall need to take dinner in bed if you will excuse me. Please make yourself thoroughly at home. You can't think how eagerly I have awaited your coming. Tomorrow we'll inspect the gardens together and the fields. There's lots to show you. Good night, my dear boy, and God bless you!'
Alec, too, was tired and went early to bed. He woke but once in the night when he heard the stable clock strike four. A patch of light which he had vaguely noticed before falling asleep still showed on the ceiling. One of the curtains, he now saw, had been only half drawn and, going to the window to adjust it, he found that the light came from a chink in the shutters of his uncle's downstair bedroom. Was the old fellow then afraid to sleep in the dark?
Of Alec's first days at Saintsend it is necessary only to record his growing affection for the place and increasing dislike of his uncle. This dislike was only slightly relieved by curiosity in regard to his character and behaviour. The two books of verse, which Alec found duly placed by Larkin at his bedside, certainly presented an enigma. A Posy of Poesy, published six years ago, was a collection of what might be described as period pieces; metrical exercises of classical artificiality. The first to catch Alec's eye as he opened the volume ran as follows:
Time was when I with heart intact
Would mock the poet's fancy
Whose heart, he quoth, was well nigh crackt
For love of pretty Nancy.
But, now I know, be stated truth:
Of me the same were spoken
Save that my dearling's name is Ruth,
My heart completely broken!
And so on, page after page, until Alec, nauseated by the banality of
My heart is locked and, woe is me,
Cressida doth keep the key
And will not unlock it!
closed the book with a vicious snap and picked up its newly published successor. In order not to waste time over it he would read the first poem, then the last, and then one taken at random from the middle.
The first was headed 'Red Idyll' and, as it seemed rather long, he looked at the last two verses only:
He smelt the hot blood spurting; then
Pressed the red blade to his own heart:
Oh throbbing wild embrace! Next morn
They two were difficult to part.
The dayspring crimsoned overhead,
But grey and cold they lay beneath;
Starkly protesting to the skies
Swift tragedy of love and death.
Good heavens! Uncle Matthew trying to be passionate and modern! What about the end piece? Here it was, written in a loose hexametrical form and entitled 'On My Portrait by N...'
How can you bid me, sir, accept the ME of this portrait?
Does it not lie by its truth, a truth that is irreligious?
Secrets are blabbed by those lips that my will had sealed for ever,
While from the eye peeps hunger for things that I live to dissemble:
The nose, too, is tendentious, sniffing up self-approval,
And a smug ear sits tuned for flattering insincerities.
Take it away, I beg: I cannot conspire betrayal
Of the poor Jekyll who gives to Hyde, out of decency, biding.
Uncle Matthew turning autopsychoanalytic! Good gracious me! And now for a piece from the middle. Here we are—'Firewatching'.
What seest thou in the caves of fire?
I see red avenues of desire
Slope to a fen of molten mire.
What hearest thou in the caves of fire?
I hear the hiss of a hellish quire,
The knell of a bell in a falling spire.
What smellest thou in the caves of fire?
I smell the reek of a funeral pyre,
Foul incense raised to Moloch's ire.
What tastest thou in the caves of fire?
The gust of rouge when cheeks perspire,
The acrid lips of a wench on hire.
What touchest thou in the caves of fire?
The dead grey ash of lust's empire
Cold or ever the red flames tire.
'Really, Uncle Matthew!' murmured Alec, and then hastily corrected himself. 'No, not really, Uncle Matthew. It just can't be; it's the sort of stuff he won't allow himself even to read. It's quite beyond or, he would say, below him.'
The next poem, in three cantos headed 'addenda', 'corrigenda' and 'delenda', repudiated his authorship even more loudly; but Alec was prevented from trying to guess any solution to the puzzle by a knock at the door and the entry of Larkin. Young Tom was going to be at home that morning and would Mr Alec be so good as to show him them insects? Yes, Mr Alec would, and at half-past eleven if convenient. At that hour consequently we find young Tom in a transport of delight and his father performing the role of commentator.
'Coo! Weren't that stinging crab a fair caution? Beg pardon, sir, did you say scorpion or scorpicle? And 'ooever seed the likes of this 'ere? A prying mantis? What, sir, prying like what they pries in church? Well, fancy that! 'E don't look much of a church-goer to me. But now, Mr Alec, if I may make so bold, please don't let Tom 'ere waste any more of your time. If you'll let me take the box downstairs 'e can make some drorins of the creeturs in the pantry for 'is Natural 'Istory master and I'll mind 'e keeps it careful as gold.'
'Very well, take it by all means: and when Tom has finished his drawings you can place it on the hall table where you put the letters.'
Who could have foretold that this simple and reasonable request was a first link in the chain of destiny that was to drag two masters of Saintsend to their deaths? Yet so it was to prove; and with speed.
On return from a walk down-river that afternoon Alec found a car at the front door and a sadly worried Larkin to greet him. His uncle, so Larkin said, had been took very poorly, not to speak of a fit, and the doctor was with him now. It had all happened along of them insects, for Mr Judeson must have seen the box on the hall table and had opened it. Talk of a shock, why in all his life Larkin had never seen anyone took worse. Matthew Judeson was indeed in serious case. Not a stroke, luckily, said the doctor, but nevertheless a cardiac upset of grave omen for the future. Of his surviving the present collapse the doctor was very hopeful, but he must lie in bed until further notice and receive no outside visitors. With the aid of a draught sent post-haste from the Tillingford dispensary the patient fell into a restful sleep and it was Alec, not he, who lay awake into the early hours of the morrow, thinking of the many things which he would venture upon in due course and congratulating himself on a probable acceleration in the time schedule.
His uncle's salutation when he went to see him next morning was unusual. 'I suppose, Alec,' he said, 'you don't believe in witches? No, I thought not. Nor had your old sceptic of an uncle ever done so until he met Miss Scettall. Now, however, he has his doubts, and perhaps you would be interested to hear the reason.'
'Look here, uncle,' Alec interrupted at this point, 'the doctor says that you're not to tire yourself. So please cut out all this roundabout talk of "your old uncle" and try to speak of yourself as "me" or "I". Yes, I would like to hear about that Mona Lisa woman if only you will speak naturally.'
Matthew contrived to turn a wince into a smile with some difficulty, because his conversion of first into third person was a trick that enabled him, as it were, to sit with the audience and admire his own play-acting. However, he affected to take the request in good part and continued, 'Anything to please you, my dear Alec! Well, when Miss Scettall came to Sennetts last year she somehow took to me and I to her. We were excellent neighbours. But as the months passed by I noticed her becoming increasingly possessive, and on New Year's Day I got a card from her with the message, 'May this Leap Year bring you happiness!' That put me on my guard, and when she suggested a walk on the afternoon of 29th February I was ready for her. After effervescing about her love for the river country, she began to enthuse over Saintsend and said that all the dear old house needed was an understanding chatelaine. It was then that I quoted two lines from my first book:
Ah! hapless nymph, what boots it him to harry
If Strephon is resolvèd not to marry?
She gave a laugh, but the sound of it was unpleasant. 'Surely,' she said, 'you don't imagine that I'm the sort to angle for superannuated fish? Come along to Sennetts and I'll give you a cup of tea.' I had to go, of course, and when tea was over and Alfred had joined us, she began the séance business that has been the curse of my life ever since.'
The doctor's arrival at this point gave his patient a respite from completing the story. This was just as well perhaps, for he was becoming exhausted.
Three or four days were to pass before, at Alec's prompting, his uncle took up the unfinished tale. Once again he started with a question.
'You know perhaps the origin of the name Saintsend?'
'Why, yes: I've read it in Bennet's Tillingford.'
'And what does Bennet say?'
'That before the big house at Sennetts was burned down in 1747 and the estate broken up, the farm we now call Santry was known as Sennett's Entry and Saintsend as Sennett's End. The present names are just contractions.'
'Then what does he say of Dedman's Reach?'
'Oh, that's a much more modern name. The land belonged not so long ago to a Sir Ulric Dedman.'
'I wish, my dear boy, that what Bennet wrote were true. Unfortunately, I know better, or perhaps I should say, worse. I learned the real truth during those séances I have told you of. The first spirit we got into touch with gave his name as Saynt; Lemuel Saynt. He said that he wanted to warn me about evil existences in the riverside willows that had brought about his drowning (Saintsend, you see, means Saynt's end) in 1703. That he was right about the willows I found out soon after, for I very nearly fell into the stream myself. I distinctly felt a push from behind, and there was a sort of gurgling grunt as my left leg slipped in. It was a horribly near thing. I have seen them too sometimes—or rather their arms and legs. That was why your mantis and stick-insects gave me such a shock last Friday. Luckily, I cannot see the willows any more now that the wall is finished and I sleep downstairs. You can still see them from your room of course, and I advise you to keep the curtains drawn on moonlit nights. We never managed to get a clear account from Saynt of the dead man in the reach. You heard Miss Scettall say the other afternoon that it was Saynt himself. I suspect her and Alfred, however, of inventing things when I am not there, and I've caught Alfred trying to guide the planchette. I'm certain, too, that both of them try to incite the willow Things against me. On quite windless nights I sometimes hear them scraping and scratching at my new wall. Who was it, Alec, who said that Hell holds no fury like a woman scorned? It's true enough of Adeline Scettall. She's playing the witch on me night and day. Your coming here, my dear boy, made me feel safer until I opened that box of yours. Magnify that mantis a dozen times and you'll have some idea of what's in the willows. You believe me, don't you? It's all perfectly true, and I simply had to tell you.'
Alec sat thinking for some moments, and then he drew his bow at a venture. 'Uncle,' he said, 'you spoke just now of Alfred guiding the planchette. Does that by any chance account for your second posy of poesy?'
'It certainly came from the planchette,' was the answer, 'and there was a spirit's order to publish it in my name I hope that it was not Alfred: if so, he's as bad as his sister. All my nice friends are offended by the verses, and the vicar at Fenfield has even asked me to give up taking round the bag. From being a sidesman I've become an untouchable! I can't blame him either.'
Unable to repress a slight smile at this ecclesiastical deprivation, Alec told his uncle not to take such things too seriously. Everything would be right and normal again so soon as the séances were stopped. Then, bidding the old man calm himself and take a nap, the nephew went out into the garden to think things over. For an hour or more he paced slowly to and fro, his eyes upon the ground. Finally, with the air of one who has laid his plan, he walked briskly across the stable-yard, through the coach-house (now used as a garage) and into the little harness-room. On a shelf stood two old acetylene car-lamps, one of which he took down and filled with carbide. He had promised, to show Larkin how the shadow puppets worked and now he needed only a dust-sheet, which was soon got, for a practical demonstration. This he gave in his bedroom after dark and, when Larkin left to lay the table for dinner, he switched the beam of the lamp for a brief moment onto the white gable of the Athenaeum. Jadi!' he said; which is Malay for 'It'll do'.
Next morning, as though to assure his uncle that he had seen nothing incredible in the previous day's narration, he remarked that, having had to get up just after midnight to open the window, he had made the mistake of looking at the willows. There was certainly something there which he could not associate with the vegetable or animal creation. He felt that his uncle must shake himself and Saintsend free from this ugly tangle of spiritualism without a day's delay. It was getting on his own nerves too.
This speech had the desired effect. 'I'll write at once,' the uncle replied, 'to Miss Scettall and tell her to arrange a final séance at Sennetts tonight. A final séance is necessary because Saynt has hinted before now of other and more direct methods of approach to me and I must avoid that at all costs. We must pension him off decently, so to speak. The doctor won't like my going out to dinner, but to be quit of this wretched business will be better medicine than any he has ever prescribed. Anyhow, I have made up my mind to go.'
After lunch Alec heard Larkin being told that his master would be out to dinner at Sennetts and that brandy, whisky and two glasses were to be put on the small table in the Athenaeum against his return. Larkin need not sit up; he would close the house himself.
'If the whisky and the second glass are meant for me,' interposed Alec, 'I must ask to be excused. I feel a bout of malaria coming on and shall go early to bed with a couple of quinine tablets. You can tell me all about your evening at Sennetts after breakfast tomorrow.'
'Very well, Larkin; the brandy and one glass only. Be careful not to forget, for after my recent collapse I may need it.'
Thus came it about that, when at nearly midnight he heard the sound of his uncle's car returning down the drive from Sennetts, Alec was in his bedroom. But not in bed. He sat on a stool by the window. On a small table behind him stood an acetylene car-lamp with a sheet of heavy cardboard pressed against the glass to block its rays. In his right hand he held a shadow puppet ready for manipulation. Through the window he could now see the figure of his uncle moving up the ramp towards the Athenaeum. Just as the figure reached the highest point Alec suddenly whipped away the sheet of cardboard and manipulated his puppet. Simultaneously, on the white gable above his uncle, loomed a long-armed, narrow-bodied, spindly shadow, beckoning and waving.
There was no cry nor sound of any sort save a dull dead thud on the gravel path beneath the ramp. Within five seconds the acetylene lamp was in a cupboard, the puppet back in its box, and Alec's head on its pillow. Nothing occurred to disturb the remaining hours of night, but early next morning Larkin found the lights in the Athenaeum still burning. A moment later he knew the cause. Another light, and one that could not be relit, had been extinguished.
The interval between the inquests on uncle and nephew was almost exactly four months. Certain events during this period are worthy of brief record for the purposes of rounding off our tale.
Nobody knows whether Leonardo da Vinci liked or disliked the smile on his Mona Lisa. Worn by Miss Scettall on a call of condolence it infuriated the new master of Saintsend. So also did her remark that all of us must come to the grave in due course. What the hell did she mean by that? Had she any suspicions? Anyhow, he wasn't going to have her poking her nose into his affairs: so he told her bluntly that he attributed his uncle's death to her spook-raising and that she would not be welcomed at Saintsend again so long as he was there. 'No doubt you'll have company enough without me,' she had replied: and what exactly did she mean by that?
Larkin always said that his new young master's heavy drinking began on the night of the old one's funeral. A tile had been blown off the bedroom roof and while dressing for dinner Alec heard the drip-drip of a leak from the ceiling. The drops were falling on the puppet box, and removing the top ones he carefully wiped each before putting the box into a drier place. He did not trouble to wash his hands thereafter and Larkin said to him as he sat at table, 'Why, sir, your fingers is all bloody!' The crimson veneer from a damp puppet had in fact come off on them, but there seemed no sufficient reason in this for Alec's extreme concern and annoyance. His face turned scarlet and then suddenly white; he swore at Larkin and bade him bring a neat brandy.
On the following morning he threw the whole collection of shadow figures, box and all, into the river. Revisiting the place that evening he cursed himself for not having corded the box. As a result of the omission one of the figures suddenly protruded itself at him from the swirl of an eddy. It seemed to him to have expanded in the water and to be now nearly life-size. That, of course, must have been an optical illusion; but Alec never cared to walk on the riverbank again and when the masons arrived by his order to pull down the garden wall he abruptly told them to leave it alone and get out. The same day he had his bed moved downstairs to a room at the opposite end of the corridor to where his uncle had slept. He was suffering, he said, from insomnia. A week or so later he ordered all windows on the river side of the house to be kept closed and shuttered by day as well as night.
The effects of heavy drinking had indeed begun to exact a heavy toll on mind and body. Larkin was accused of allowing young Tom to put scorpions and centipedes into Alec's boots and shoes and a scarlet mantis into his bed. All patterned carpets and rugs had soon to be taken up and stowed in the box-room, for Alec felt that in some strange way insects and shadow figures had got woven into the designs. Curtains were next taken down because of what he believed to lurk in their folds, and pictures because of what might hide behind them. No window might now be opened, even on the landward side, and bath plugs must be kept firmly in their sockets for fear of what might otherwise crawl out on him.
The faithful Larkin at last gave notice. Before its term was up, however, the end had come, and from a trivial causation. The Tillingford Grammar School was about to stage a speech-day pageant, of which one item would be a 'grasshopper parade' performed by the smaller boys. Their costumes, cheap but effective, were of green-dyed sacking with long thin osier shoots for antennae and legs. After rehearsal one evening Tom, thus clad, ran up to Saintsend to show his father. In an end-of-term exuberance he jumped the little clipped yew hedge below the rose garden and landed nimbly on the lower lawn. Alec at this moment, perhaps in maudlin remorse, was gazing down from the stone ramp on to the spot in the gravel path below where his uncle had fallen to his death. Out of the corner of a bloodshot eye he caught a sudden glimpse of the boy-grasshopper. With a hysterical cry of 'Good God! that mantis again!' he stumbled, pitched forward and fell.
Larkin, who was tidying up inside the Athenaeum, heard both cry and thudding crunch. Quick though he ran to his master's assistance, it was to no use; for the neck was broken.
Saintsend thus passed into possession of a distant and wealthy cousin, John Fenderby-Judeson. Within a year or so he had made many improvements, including the removal of Matthew Judeson's wall. Later he married a neighbouring lady whose Christian name was seldom spoken, for he chose to call her 'Mona Lisa'. The most recent accounts from Tillingford and Fenfield suggest that the riverine air of Saintsend is not suiting her too well and that she would like the dividing wall to be rebuilt. She complains, too, of bad nights, but her husband assures her that, if only she will exercise patience, an end will surely come to them in due course.
It is over ten years since Martin Lorimer's death, and there is nobody now living to whom the publication of these notes could, as far as I can see, cause pain or offence. However, in order to make safety on this point safer, I have falsified all personal and place-names throughout the narrative; and the first fact, therefore, to be recorded about the man of whom I write is that in real life he answered neither to the name of Martin nor to that of Lorimer.
Few of his old school or college friends kept up with him in after life. This was because Lorimer entered upon an educational career under the Colonial Office and was posted to distant Kongea, where he eventually became principal of a Teachers' Training College and the author of several works on and in the Kongahili language. What bound him and me in the ties of fairly regular correspondence over two decades was a mutual interest in philately. He stayed with me more than once while on furlough and I must say that, had it not been for our common hobby, my initial invitation to him would not have been repeated.
The fault in Lorimer's make-up was a strain of militant and outmoded free thinking. Successive Directors of Education in Kongea had found in this quality of his a counterweight to the predominantly missionary element in Kongean scholastic circles. His appointment as head of Takeokuta College came indeed as a thunderbolt to the local leaders of all religious denominations, and it was followed in the very next issue of the College Chronicle by an article from his pen entitled 'Creeds and Crudities'. To this the still youthful and pugnacious Bishop of Kongea retorted in the Kongean Catechist with an editorial on 'Rot in Rationalism'. This, however, only had the effect of provoking the College Chronicle into a further dissertation on 'Mind versus Mitre'.
Lorimer would send me (and I still have them in my cuttings book) copies of his articles in various newspapers and one of them, in the Takeokuta College Chronicle, is of special relevance to subsequent events. I will, therefore, reproduce it in full. It ran as follows:
The scandal of the Sadilena pilgrimage shows no abatement. This year in fact there are more pilgrims than ever before, owing to a report that the effulgence from the so-called sacred cave-wall is of unprecedented brightness. It will be remembered that the Sadilena cave was not discovered until the Boundary Commission of 1873 and that it did not become the focus of superstition until 1889, when Ubusda (self-styled hermit, but known to the police as a professional cheat and gambler) discovered the luminosity of the inner cavern and, at the small cost of a plaster statue of the goddess Vahrunda which he set up in its middle, invented all the lying propaganda about miraculous cures and fulfilments of petitions that later achieved his fortune and fame as self-inducted cave-priest. When he died in 1899 many hoped that the government would seize the opportunity of sealing up the cave and thereby save the ignorant masses from further pseudo-religious exploitation. Unfortunately it did not do so, and within a year or two an ambitious priest from the temple below Nikoduna migrated to Sadilena and there turned troglodyte. Under his astute management the pilgrimage soon became a profitable business enterprise wherefrom only an infinitesimal part of the profits accrued to the cult of the goddess Vahrunda. The stock-in-trade of this giant hoax is nothing more than a patch of phosphorescent fungus or lichen growing on a cave wall. The pretension of its miraculous nature is maintained only by a sacerdotal injunction against introduction into the cavern of lamps, candles, matches, or any other means of illumination. Thus, simply but effectually, does murk make mystery and darkness dower deceit. We warn our readers against allowing themselves to be made dupes of such deception!
Some eighteen months after receipt of this cutting I got a letter from Lorimer, posted from a hotel at Bournepool, to say that he had been invalided from Kongea and was home on pension. Could he come and stay with me for a night or two and bring some stamps with him for possible exchange? Having replied in the affirmative I met him a fortnight later at Boscote station, which is three miles from my Westshire cottage.
His first remark on alighting from the train was that he was feeling rotten. His face confirmed it too; though it would be truer to say that he looked rotting rather than rotten. He wore an appearance of active, not static, decay.
'I suppose, Robinson,' he enquired with some agitation, 'that you wouldn't mind my opening that cabin trunk a moment before it's put into the car? I have an idea that I've gone and left something very important behind.'
'But why open it here?' I replied. 'If you wish to wire for anything the telegraph office is only two minutes' walk from my cottage. You won't get anything sent down today, though, for the last train left London half an hour ago.'
'Very well, I'll wait. Do you think that we could have the hood down? After that dingy railway carriage I feel like getting a spot of sun and a breath of fresh air.'
To this I readily agreed, for he seemed to me to have used a too heavily perfumed hair oil or else to have given his handkerchief an overdose of scent. I could not call to mind having noticed such a failing in Lorimer on his previous visits, although I am particularly sensitive to an overscented atmosphere.
During the short drive from the station I saw him look several times inside his coat-sleeves and, by twisting and bending each leg in turn, inside his trousers too. 'Fleas,' he explained, catching my inquisitive glance, 'or possibly something larger! That's the worst of railway travel.' I had never myself found our railway verminous, but I refrained from saying so. Incidentally, this was the first time I had known Lorimer travel first-class.
No sooner had we arrived at the house and his trunk been carried to his room than Lorimer went upstairs to unpack. In my study below I could hear him throwing things out on to the floor, and then suddenly I heard hurried footsteps on the staircase and he burst in on me, white and trembling.
'For God's sake, Robinson,' he said in a strained voice, 'lend me an electric torch. As I feared, I have left mine behind.'
'You won't need one,' I replied. 'There's an electric-light switch under the pillow and a bed-lamp besides.'
'That'll be no use. You see, Robinson, I must have light under the bedclothes. The lamp will never shine through the blankets and eiderdown.'
I looked at him in amazement. He must, I thought, have become what is vulgarly termed 'dippy' and the only thing for me to do was to humour him. Fortunately, I did happen to possess an electric torch which I used when locking up the greenhouse and garage each night. I therefore promised to lend it him provided that he would come out with his full reasons and treat me as an old friend anxious to help him. This is what he then told me.
'You may remember,' Lorimer began, 'a newspaper cutting which I sent you some eighteen months ago about the Sadilena pilgrimage? Well, last year three of my senior pupils at Takeokuta asked leave of absence in order, as they put it, that they might go and worship the Holy Gleam. I was, as you may imagine, very angry. I replied that a condition of their going would be that I should accompany them, and that I should duly demonstrate to them and to any pilgrims present the material nature of the phosphorescence. It was as absurd to call it a holy gleam as to deify a glowworm or a firefly.
'So in a few days time we set out together, but as soon as we had left the train and started walking along the ten-mile footpath I could see that my company was distasteful to them. For the whole length of our progress they sought to dissuade me from exposing and exploding the bogus mystery. The more they argued and entreated the angrier and more resolute I became, and my annoyance reached its climax when on arrival at the outer cave all three prostrated themselves before its hairy and unwashen custodian: a most disgusting sight! Here, too, I found the pilgrimage to have been commercialised to the extent of our having to buy tickets before entering the inner cavern.
'The passage to it though short was crooked, with the result that no daylight could penetrate the interior. Once inside, the glow from the walls became rapidly visible. I must confess that the luminescence exceeded my anticipation and I realised that less imposing phenomena have in the course of history been hailed as miraculous. So much greater the need, I reflected, for nipping the present superstition in the bud. The moment for action had arrived. With the fingers of both hands I vigorously scraped the shining rock surface and sure enough there fell into my palms a luminous mildew or lichen, slightly cold and damp to the touch. It shone a blueish-green and, heaping it all into my left hand, I held it aloft for all to see. With my right hand I whipped out from my trouser pocket a small electric torch. "Look now," I cried, "at your wonderful mystery. Nothing but a handful of dirty fungus or mould!" Before I could switch on the light, however, the torch was struck from my hand in the dark and fell with a clanking thud at my feet. Although I could not see them, somehow I felt my three pupils leave my side and soon heard their steps retreating down the passage. Nevertheless, I knew myself not to be left alone; indeed, I have seldom had so vivid a sense of company. Of its nature there now came audible indication; for there fell in my ears a succession of versicles and responses intoned antiphonally by what I surmised to be a company of priests. The words that I heard were Kongahili but, although I have never consciously translated them, it is in an English version that they have become engraved on my memory. This is how they ran:
V. Whom name ye guilty of the sin of sins?
R. Him who lays band upon the Holy Gleam.
V. A man may touch by hap, not of intent.
R. Vahrunda pities: he shall be forgiven.
V. Another in youth's folly, or in wine.
R. Him she will burn with fevers, but let live.
V. But if the act be purposive and planned?
R. Who sinneth thus shall die within the year.
V. But first a hundred days of witless fear,
R. And sixty in half-knowledge of his doom:
V. Two hundred more beneath Vahrunda's curse
R. Of shining plague, whose reek be must inhale
V. Until the year be up and he may die.
R. Thrice six score days of misery; then death.
'The chanting ceased and I groped my way towards the passage. Somebody must have followed me for, just as I emerged blindly into the outer cave, I heard a repetition of the final response croaked in a cracked voice from the gloom behind me:
Thrice six score days of misery; then death.
'There was no sign outside of my three pupils. The whole place seemed deserted. I started, therefore, on the homeward trek alone. Whomever I passed on the footpath gazed at me so oddly that I supposed my clothes to have become badly soiled in the cave. Inspection, however, showed that this was not the case. Perhaps it was that my fingers were bleeding round the nails. It was foolish to have scraped so hard. Three times I tried to buy fruit at wayside stalls, but they refused me on the ground that they sold only to pilgrims. The news of my deed had obviously preceded me.
'The more I thought of my three pupils the angrier I felt towards them My mission in the cause of truth had not been a success. The cave priests clearly had been forewarned and thereby enabled to stage a scene of melodrama. I had been made a fool of: perhaps something worse than a fool. The only sensible course would be to dismiss the whole wretched episode from my mind and think of it no more.
'This. however proved impossible. Within two days I was summoned by the Director of Education and, from the moment that I saw him, I realised that I had lost a friend. He was amazed, so he said, by my disregard for Kongean religious susceptibilities. The chieftains were demanding my dismissal from the College, and the Governor had called for an immediate report. Thirty-seven influential parents had already withdrawn their sons from attendance at my lectures, and it had, therefore, been his duty to order my transfer to the Central Education Office, where I should find useful employment in translating some recently-arrived primers into Kongahili. Mr Cadgeby (a cousin of the Bishop's, whom I despised more than any other of my colleagues) had been instructed to succeed me as Head of the College. There need be no handing-over; and, indeed, it would be inadvisable in all the circumstances for me to enter the College premises again. To be quite explicit, he had no option but to forbid my doing so. That, for the present, was all: but I should probably be required, in the near future, to reply to a formal disciplinary charge of having conducted myself in a manner unbecoming a public servant.
'From this unpleasant interview I returned to my house, to find it deserted by the whole staff of Kongean servants. Until I succeeded in inducing three rascally half-breeds to take, their places, I had to go to the European Club for all my meals. Here, too, I found myself an object of disapproval, being asked by several heads of business firms why the devil I couldn't leave other people's religions alone. The bank manager accused me stoutly of stirring up anti-British prejudice, and a pioneer planter of having let down the white man. The majority of members avoided me. It was my first taste of ostracism.
'I could have borne it better, perhaps, if I had felt well. But, unfortunately, I had begun to sleep badly of nights, owing to a severe itching at my finger-tips. There had been no water near the Sadilena cave in which to wash my hands after scraping the wall, and some infectious matter must have got in under the nails. The doctor gave me some ointment; but, in spite of its curing the irritation, the insomnia to which it had given rise persisted. I became a prey to all sorts of fears and fancies about my health. With the aid of a handbook entitled Every Man His Own Doctor I diagnosed my disorder successively as diabetic, tubercular and cancerous. I could not say which was the greater at this time: my loathing of life or my fear of death. Both gripped me simultaneously. The doctors grew worried and I was ordered up to Bendosari, our only hill station. It was there that I had the first inkling of my real trouble.
'While suffering from insomnia I used to imagine that nothing could be worse. The kind of sleep or torpor into which I now fell night after night at Bendosari proved how wrong I had been. Repeated nightmares can be infinitely more wearing and alarming than mere sleeplessness. Shortly before dawn each morning I woke up drenched by a cold sweat of horror at what I had dreamed. I had been in the Sadilena cavern again. Again I had scraped its luminous wall, and again heard that chanting in the dark. The words began to take on a frightening significance. A hundred days of witless fear! Was not that exactly what I had recently suffered? And could I hide from myself any longer that I was daily suppressing an intuition of what was in store for me? I knew that it was not diabetes; not phthisis, nor cancer. None of those would account for a certain anaesthesia, a lumpiness and sense of corrugation whenever I stroked my legs, arms or face.
'The moment that I allowed my lips to frame the fatal word, I felt as though a dam had burst inside me, and I rushed through the hotel crying "Leprosy! leprosy! leprosy!" The other guests, not unnaturally, complained; and I was quickly recalled to Takeokuta for examination by a medical board. None of the three doctors who composed it can have any experience of leprosy, for they stupidly assured me that I showed no signs of it. What they invalided me for, I have never had the curiosity to ask. I knew the truth, and was thankful to get out of Kongea on pension, whatever label they might choose to set on my condition.
'On the voyage home the full foulness of my fate was finally revealed to me. One hot and windless night I woke to find myself gazing at my bare feet as they rested against the end of the berth. It struck me as odd that they alone, of all objects in the cabin, should be in the moonlight. I moved them, and the moonlight seemed to follow. I looked at the porthole. There was no moon! My heart thudded with sudden realisation. My leprosy was luminous. Vahrunda's curse, the shining plague!'
'Shaking all over, I switched on the lights to hide it; and every night I kept them switched on until we were off the coast of Spain, when cold compelled the use of a blanket. If only I could have drilled myself not to look under it, I might have been spared much. But I could not. Curiosity kept me constantly peeping under the bedclothes to see how far the luminosity had crept above my ankles; for I felt that it would surely, if slowly, invade my whole body. That, Robinson, is why I cannot sleep now without an electric torch between the sheets. The batteries run out every now and then. Every time this happens, I find the disease to have crept higher. It is already half-way up my thighs. Eventually, of course, it will reach my face and hands. That is why I frequently treat them with antiseptic soaps and lotions.
'I have begun, too, to be conscious of the emanation from my skin of a faintly civet-like odour, which I daily disguise by a liberal use of oils and scents, as you have probably noticed.
'Well, that's the whole story. So please hand over that torch, and don't, for God's sake, start telling me that it's all imagination, as the damned doctors do. If it's their way of saying that there is no cure, I agree with them: but they might have the decency to be honest about it!'
I was not sorry when, two days later, Lorimer left me. Somehow or other, I missed the announcement of his death (which occurred some weeks later) in the daily papers. I read of it, however, in the 'Weekly Summary' of the Westshire Review, which gave, also, some account of the inquest. The body had been found in Thanwell tunnel, on the main line to Wolmingham, and a Mr Algernon Cutley, of 11 Almington Crescent in that city, gave evidence as follows:
We were alone in the compartment. The main switch for the whole carriage must have fused since we ran through the tunnels outside King's Pancras, when all the lights were on as usual. At Thanwell, we plunged into pitch blackness. After a minute or so, I heard my fellow-traveller ask whether I could see anything luminous on him. I smiled at the oddity of the question and answered: "Nothing, except the dial of your wrist-watch." Then I heard him get up and slide open the corridor door, muttering something about washing his hands. When the train ran out of the tunnel, I got up and walked along the corridor to the luncheon-car. I noticed that the exit door at the side of the lavatory door was ajar, but thought nothing of it at the time. When I came back from lunch, somebody had slammed it to: probably the ticket-collector. My compartment was now empty and I supposed that my fellow-traveller had got out at Trentchester, while I was eating lunch. No, sir, I noticed nothing unusual about the gentleman, except for his odd question and for his smelling very strongly of scent.
In thanking Mr Cutley for having come forward with his valuable evidence, the coroner remarked that, in one single respect only—and that an unimportant one—had his account not tallied with the circumstantial details of the case, so far as these had proved ascertainable. The slight difference lay in the fact that the body, as found, carried no wrist-watch.
In Kongea it is ever hot of an afternoon, but the annual meeting of the Kongean Art Club seemed always to engender a special warmth. Perhaps it was a mistake to hold it so early as four o'clock, but members wanted to be at the Swimming Club by seven; and who could foretell how long old Jenderby, the president, might meander on in his comments on the annual report or how many protests would need to be listened to on the subject of hangings, rejections and awards at the last August show? On one point only were all the older members agreed: that Mr Lorenzo de Castro's pictures must never be refused; because they invariably attracted buyers, the Club reaping a commission of ten per centum on all sales. Mr Eckington of the Kongean Courier, knowing what his editor (a keen collector of 'de Castro's') expected of him, would begin accounts of each successive exhibition with some such words as: 'This year, no fewer than a score of Mr de Castro's striking canvases will be found on the walls of the Main Gallery.' To disregard or criticise the public taste for de Castros would have been to throw doubt upon the financial acumen of the colony's merchant princes and leading bankers, most of whom had been wheedled by their wives into, buying examples and were wont to excuse the purchase by pronouncing it 'a good spec'. Mr Eckington signed his articles, not as 'Art Critic', but as 'Art Correspondent': wherein lay a distinction; for Mr Eckington was not unconscientious.
Of de Castro's own origin and history there were many and divergent rumours. The only established fact was that he had entered the colony some eleven years ago, on a Spanish passport. Thereafter, he had found employment as superintendent of decorations at the Austral Restaurant and, enthusiastically vouched for by its directors, had recently been granted letters of British naturalisation. Whatever might have been his Iberian past, his Kongean present was thus entirely satisfactory and acceptable. Under the magic of his brush, the dingy old 'Austral' had blossomed into an ornate cheerfulness that was handsomely reflected in bookings and bar-takings. Indeed, the long and short of it is that de Castro was a clever scene-painter; and if only he had rested content with such achievement, what is about to be narrated could never have happened. Kongea, however, supposed him—and he, himself—to be an artist.
'And now, ladies and gentlemen,' boomed Mr Jenderby, 'we have to determine the date of our next exhibition. Hitherto, it has always been held in early August; but this year we are confronted with a serious difficulty.'
Here, Mr Jenderby paused to clear his throat, and so afforded Miss Cavilege the opportunity to snap in with: 'What difficulty? We know of none.' Miss Cavilege, recently appointed Art and Music Preceptress at the Takeokuta College, had already won the esteem of its alumni by painting a portrait of the Principal as ugly and unpleasant as the likeness was unmistakable.
Mr Jenderby, with an air of not having heard the interruption, continued sonorously: 'Any of us who has the welfare of this Club at heart will be aware of what that difficulty is; for it is common knowledge that Mr de Castro is sailing for England by the Rutlandshire and will not, therefore, be here for an August show. To hold it in his absence and without any exhibits from him would be to forgo the Club's principal item of revenue and main attraction to the public. There appears, therefore, every ground for making some sort of special arrangement.'
'What do you mean by special arrangement?' again interposed Miss Cavilege with a hostile sniff; 'the organisation of the Club shows is governed by Rule 23, I believe.'
The glare which the President now fixed upon Miss Cavilege being met by a counter-glare no less fierce, the Honorary Secretary tactfully tipped over the vase of alamanders abutting his minute-book and so diverted the attention of the meeting to a clearing up of the mess.
'I was about to say,' Mr Jenderby resumed when the mopping was complete, 'that Mr de Castro has submitted a sensible and generous suggestion. Provided that we agree to hang two dozen of his as yet unexhibited and unsold pictures in the sky-lighted portion of our premises, and not to mix them up with the work of other contributors, Mr de Castro will leave that number with us for exhibition in his absence. Re will choose the canvases himself and thereby relieve the Selection Committee from unnecessary trouble.'
Miss Cavilege's reaction to this announcement graduated from a sniff into a snort. 'I oppose it,' she said, with an ominous restraint of voice. 'I have learnt not to expect consideration for art from this society; but this proposal isn't even cricket. It would be monstrous to degrade our gallery into a saleroom for Mr de Castro, especially at this juncture, when a real artist is about to come amongst us.'
'A real artist?'
'Yes, a real artist, if such a phrase conveys anything to members of this Club. The Principal of the College got a cable this morning to say that John Mainbarrow was on his way out for a three months painting tour in Kongea and the archipelago. Possibly, however, you may never have heard of him. It wouldn't surprise me.'
From this sally, Mr Jenderby took cover in a look of unctuous incomprehension. 'If Mr Mainbarrow,' he said, 'should honour our Club with his attention, I have no doubt that we shall accord him a fitting welcome. If he should condescend to contribute to our exhibition, space for his pictures could certainly be found; if necessary, we might temporarily displace the Bugson Bequest But I am quite unable to see the relevance of his approaching visit to a consideration of our old friend Mr de Castro's proposal, which I now put to the meeting for grateful acceptance.'
The right hands of all present, except Miss Cavilege, shot upward and, muttering the one word 'typical', she picked up her portfolio and strode from the room. Her exit, however, caused no comment, for members of the Club were well used to such ebullitions. Later, at the Swimming Club, over a very acid lime squash, Miss Cavilege expressed her frank opinion of Mr Jenderby and, over a stiff whisky-and-soda, Mr Jenderby his of Miss Cavilege. The afternoon heat survived the sunset.
John Mainbarrow's one-man show at the Grangeby Galleries had been a distinct success. He had sold some fifteen pictures, netted two hundred pounds or more, and won favourable notice in The Easel, from the pen of Professor Sedley. According to the professor, his pictures, surprisingly various in subject, displayed a homogeneity of conception, expression and technique such as to justify his admirers in their talk of Mainbarrow style.
Such praise, from such a quarter, would in any young artist of John's sensibility have induced an excusable measure of conceit. In his case, however, it also instigated three months of overwork, resulting in a bad bout of nerves and insomnia. When, therefore, he received an invitation from his old Oxbridge friend, Cadgeby (now acting Head of Takeokuta College), to come and stay for two or three months in Kongea, his doctor advised telegraphic acceptance of the invitation and as early a sailing as could be arranged.
The advice had been taken and Mainbarrow was now nearing the end of his outward voyage. He already knew how and wherewith to replace the dews that tropical temperatures wring from the human body and had made many acquaintances at the smoking-room bar. Among these was old Sir Joseph Pagworth, for thirty years resident manager of Kongean Cinchona Limited, and, in his present retirement, chairman of its London board of directors.
'I am always glad,' Sir Joseph was saying, 'to visit the old colony again; though, in these days, it's in a hell of a muck. Too many black faces in the Council and too much red tape in the secretariat. One can't propose anything, now, without their passing some law or other against doing it. However, none of 'em dare meddle with fundamentals. Whisky and gin, I mean: have another?'
'They tell me, by the way, that you're one of these painter chaps. Well, you'll get colour all right in Kongea, plenty of it. I mind one evening, when our Mickey's nose bled all over my wife's yellow-satin frock. "Why, there's a Kongean sunset for you," I told her. But my wife never could appreciate poetry. Used to sing, though. I almost seem to hear her now. "Every morn I bring thee violets"—that was her favourite. Sang it in German, though. Yes, you'll get colour all right. I hear that a young dago called Castrato, or some such name, is making quite a good thing out of his sketches in Takeokuta. Doesn't stint his paints, either: more than two dollars' worth of 'em on every picture, they say. I guess you two'll be no end of pals when he's given you a tip or two. Then there's a frosty old virgin on the College staff, name of Sacrilege, I believe. Dabbles in water-colour stuff; you know the sort, I expect. Used to be barmy on the Bishop, till he told her over a pineapple ice at the Governor's garden party that he had a stern vocation to celibacy. So you be wary of her, or she'll be queering your palette for you. Have another?'
It was not only from Sir Joseph that Mainbarrow heard of de Castro. Most of the planters and miners on board also spoke of him and of how he had recently raised his prices from twenty-five to sixty dollars a canvas. Some, whose wives had made them buy at the earlier price, now took credit for having known a good thing when they saw it. According to them, de Castro was going to England to book space for his pictures in next year's Academy. His stuff would make some of the Old Masters look a bit dowdy, they guessed.
John's ears, still pleasantly tingling with echoes of Professor Sedley's encomium, were ill-attuned to this jargon of Philistia. He quickly came to loathe the very name of de Castro. The fellow must be a vulgar mass-producer, a shameless pot-boiler. How lucky that they would never meet, journeying, as they were, in opposite directions! The nearest that they would come to each other would be when the Rutlandshire passed the Tirynthian. This happened to take place at night; but not at too late an hour for jocular exchange of marconigrams between homeward- and outward-bound Kongeans. To Mainbarrow's surprise, one such missive was for him. Tearing it open, he read:
SORRY MISS YOU WELCOME TO CRADLE OF MY ART DE CASTRO.
Well; of all damnable impertinences! Cradle of his art, indeed! For an hour or so John lay awake drafting withering replies, each of which he tore up in turn as hopelessly inadequate. Finally, reflecting that silence is the sharpest sword of contempt, he turned over and courted sleep.
But was this sleep that came? Yes, he reasoned afterwards; for without sleep there is no dreaming, and what he now saw could only be a dream. In the middle of the cabin sat a man feverishly painting at an easel. His head moved neither upward, downward, nor aside. There was something sinister, even malevolent, about its fixity. Then, with a shudder, he saw the explanation. Beneath the eyebrows were no eyes, nor eyelids: only a flat, blank ledge of flabby, ashen skin. Its obscenity wrung from Mainbarrow a groan that mercifully woke him into action. Hastily switching on the light, he snatched from the berth-rack a detective novel lent him by Sir Joseph and grimly set himself to banish from his mind the foulness he had dreamed. In this, however, he was only temporarily successful, for he found to his vexation next day, that any mention of de Castro by a fellow-passenger revivified the memory of his nightmare.
'Come along now,' called Sir Joseph, 'and let me introduce you to a gin-swizzle, the proper nectar for an artist. Oh! by the way, I got a wireless message last night from that Castrato chap, asking me to look after you. I suppose you painter fellows practise a sort of freemasonry, don't you? Anyhow, I wirelessed back, ordering three of his latest daubs at a hundred dollars apiece. That was what he may have been after, of course. Well, I don't expect to be too badly down on it when the time comes to sell off my tropical junk. Hullo! Why, that must be the outer-shoal buoy to starboard there: we ought to be alongside and tied up by lunch-time. Another?'
Sir Joseph's anticipation of a lunch-time arrival proved correct. On the wharf stood Cadgeby, with two servants and a car, ready to receive and transport his guest. On their way from the docks, he expressed regret that John's visit should coincide with the absence from the colony of their premier artist, one de Castro, a dozen or so of whose landscapes he proudly pointed out on the walls of his bungalow immediately after their arrival. John's inspection of them was, he hoped, marked by such appearance of interest as common courtesy required; inwardly, he damned them as slick and meretricious, as indeed they were.
'I suppose,' he said, by way of making polite conversation, 'that de Castro has to repeat his subjects pretty often.'
'He is far too conscientious to paint duplicates,' Cadgeby replied; 'but, naturally, in the course of his long residence here he has often painted the same thing more than once. Which reminds me; the Bishop will be dropping in after tea to show us de Castro's design for a central panel in the cathedral reredos. I understand that he has introduced Kongean scenery as background for a Madonna in the style of Bougereau.'
Mainbarrow winced: then, turning from the pictures and directing a puzzled glance at his host, 'Cadgeby,' he said, 'what is the real name of this colony?'
'What on earth do you mean? Kongea, of course!'
'Sorry, old man! It's stupid of me, but I thought it might be Decastroland.'
Mainbarrow's first month in Kongea was productive of some of his best pictures. Three of them ('Sadilena Falls', 'Vahrunda's Altar', and 'Portrait of a Pioneer') were placed on the line in next year's Royal Academy. The model for the 'Pioneer' was none other than old Sir Joseph, got up, somewhat disreputably, for a fishing picnic; and John's first thought for a tide had been: 'Have Another?'
Takeokuta College being in vacation, Cadgeby was able to motor his guest round the cool highland districts, and the time so spent, though very pleasurable and full of opportunity for painting, was uneventful for purposes of this record. It was on his return to Takeokuta that John first came under Miss Cavilege's assiduous and unsolicited attention. So many questions, she said, arose in the teaching of art at the College that could only be answered after reference to a real artist. Opinions, or obiter dicta, of Mr de Castro were continually being quoted at her by students; most of which, she felt, called for correction, if not denial. During his tour upcountry Mainbarrow had managed, without much difficulty, to banish de Castro from his thoughts, and it irked him greatly that he should now be inveigled into criticism and controversy concerning him. The Cavilege woman, however, was importunate, and his annoyance with her became a stimulus rather than a counterirritant to his distaste for de Castro.
It was under such provocation that Mainbarrow set himself, after early tea of a morning, to an unwholesome and unworthy piece of painting. His consciousness of its unworthiness was evidenced by the care which he took to hide it away under his travelling rug and in a cupboard whenever he left his bedroom. He worked at it, moreover, not in the room itself (which servants were wont to enter, after knocking), but with locked doors in the adjoining bathroom. It was the picture of a man painting at an easel. The landscape on which he was working recalled unmistakably de Castro's 'Mountains at Morn' which hung in the College hall. The face of this painter had neither eyes nor eyelids. Where these should have been, there was indicated only a flat, blank ledge of flabby, ashen skin. John was, in fact, giving substance on canvas to his nightmare on the voyage. 'I'll send it in for the local show,' he chuckled; 'I wonder what the Selection Committee will make of it!'
He found difficulty, however, in finishing the picture to his satisfaction. Whenever he uncovered it, after laying it by, the figure seemed to invite compassion rather than the contempt—which he intended. He would, thereupon, set brush to it again ill-temperédly and, by the time that it was ready for framing, he was heartily sick of the thing. Heaving a sigh of relief he tacked it into a gilt surround, locked it in the bathroom cupboard, and went out for a breath of fresh air in the public gardens. Here, from a passing car that nearly knocked him down, Miss Cavilege waved and kissed her hand at him. He meant what he muttered.
On his return to the bungalow Cadgeby met him on the steps with a copy of the Kongean Courier in his hand, and, pointing to a front-page paragraph, said: 'Bad news for us and you, I'm afraid; read that.'
Mainbarrow took the paper and did so. This was the paragraph:
Art-lovers will learn with distress of our receipt of disquieting news concerning Mr Lorenzo de Castro. On arrival in London he is reported to have complained of pain in the eye sockets and to have consulted leading specialists. The case is understood to present unusual symptoms and to have so far defied definite diagnosis. His last engagement before leaving for treatment and complete rest at Southgate-on-Sea was to see the three pictures by Mr John Mainbarrow (now on a visit to Takeokuta) which were recently purchased by the Bournepool Municipal Gallery. His many friends and admirers in Kongea will join with us in wishing Mr de Castro early and complete recovery.
Handing the paper back to Cadgeby, Mainbarrow yielded to a sudden desire to have another look at the picture he had just finished. As in other tropical countries, a bathroom in Kongea has two doors: one into the bedroom whereto it belongs, and the other giving directly onto the garden, whence water for the bath is carried in by the waterman. Finding the light from the windows too dim, John swung open the garden door and, standing with his back to it, surveyed his clandestine work. He regarded it with intense disapproval for five minutes or more. It was, he saw, intrinsically wrong and ugly; displaying strength without virtue. Its exhibition, even if there had not come this news about de Castro, would have been indecent. He felt a sudden rage, and, striding into the bedroom, took from the dressing-table drawer a Kongean dagger which he had bought as a curio. Back in the bathroom, he pounced on the canvas and stabbed it into small strips. Then, as he stood contemplating the wreck of several hours' work, it struck him as strange that, amid tropical heat, his sweat should feel cold. Damn de Castro! Shivering slightly, he turned suddenly round at a hint of rustling in the bamboo hedge outside the open door. Nobody was there, so far as he could see, and a waving of a casuarina bush behind the hedge was, he persuaded himself, caused by a wind off the sea. The bonfire of weeds and clippings that was burning beyond the canna bed determined his next movement. He carried out the ruin of his canvas and poked it under the glowing embers.
After dinner that evening Cadgeby was called to the telephone. The editor of the Courier had rung him up to say that, according to a press cable just received, de Castro had committed suicide; presumably under fear of complete blindness.
If Miss Cavilege had, as the saying goes, been throwing herself at John Mainbarrow, she now indulged in a reverse process of throwing herself away from him. Nor was her method of doing so one of mere avoidance. She would attend functions at which they were bound to meet and then pointedly disregard him. Perhaps, he surmised, conscience was smiting her for a thousand uncharitable things she had said to him about de Castro. Such a probability, indeed, seemed indicated by the lip-service she now paid to the dead man's work. At a special meeting of the Art Club, convened to pass a vote of condolence with the bereaved family, Miss Cavilege astonished her fellow-members by reading a carefully composed essay on his talent. In it she made a veiled reference to somebody who might, in his own estimation, be a better artist; from which not a few of her hearers inferred that her infatuation for Mainbarrow must have ended as infructuously as her earlier pursuit of the Bishop.
The full reason for her change of front was, however, revealed to John Mainbarrow at a small dinner given by Cadgeby in the last week of his stay. Conversation having veered fitfully from art and literature to philosophy and religion, Miss Cavilege was heard to ask the Bishop whether his lordship believed in witchcraft. Sir Joseph Pagworth's remark that, in his experience, all women were witches, more or less, elicited only a contemptuous glance and a repetition of her question, with an added special reference to the Kongean practice of sticking pins into the effigy of an enemy.
'The superstition to which Miss Cavilege alludes,' the Bishop responded, 'is agelong and far from being peculiar to Kongea. In Europe, it could be traced back, I believe, to the Mycenaean Age, and a still longer history be found for it in Asia and Africa. From the records of their trials it is clear that witches sincerely believed in their craft; and it has ever been a weakness of the human mind to translate coincidence and imprecation into causality and agency. The insertion of pins into a material object is an action physically complete in itself; but as to whether accompanying mental or psychic states may or may not have telepathic consequences, I prefer not to speculate. Our Faith bids us to live in charity with all men; and to stick pins into one's neighbour, however vicariously, is certainly not charity. For the Christian, therefore, such practices, whether effective or not, are clearly taboo. The angels are not on the side of the witches.'
'Thank you, Bishop; I am sorry to have bothered you with such an unusual question. What put it into my head was a silly dream that I had the other day of an artist painting the portrait of a rival, but without any eyes, and then stabbing the picture to bits with a knife. It must have been poor Mr de Castro's eye-trouble and suicide that put such nonsense into my brain. What added to the dream's absurdity was that the artist was painting in his bathroom!'
'Why ever not?' grunted Sir Joseph; 'that's where I sing opera.'
Mainbarrow was grateful to the old Philistine for thus switching the conversation away from Miss Cavilege's gambit into comicalities. So the quivering of the bamboos and casuarina had been due to something more substantial than a breeze! It would, of course, be useless to tell Miss Cavilege about his dream on the voyage out. She had put her own melodramatic construction on what she had seen and would doubtless stick to it. Indeed, she pointedly avoided saying good-night to him, and he saw her on only one occasion more. This was at a farewell tea given in his honour by the Art Club. At its close, Mr Jenderby presented to him, as a memento from the members, a small canvas by the late de Castro, entitled 'Kongean Nightpiece'. The scowl which Miss Cavilege directed at him while he was returning thanks left him in no doubt that, whatever picture or figure she might have chosen to represent him, it must already resemble a porcupine.
Lying in a long deck-chair on the Lacedaemonian, John Mainbarrow reflected that, much as he had otherwise enjoyed his Kongean visit, the whole de Castro business had been nasty and discomfiting. He must, at any rate, get straight with himself about it: so, fetching pencil and paper, he jotted down the following notes:
1 Bad attack of nerves owing to overwork and insomnia Trip to Kongea taken for recuperation.
2 Plagued by fellow-passengers with eulogies of hack painter de Castro.
3 This got on already sore nerves and induced nightmare of eyeless artist. Dream image resurrected whenever heard name of de Castro.
4 On arrival in Kongea, found his daubs everywhere and heard them extolled as highest art.
5 Miss C. added fuel to fire of my aversion by daily quotation of opinions alleged to be de Castro's.
6 Discovered her intentions towards me were matrimonial. She talked of a union of minds based on a common hatred.
7 As safety-valve for my feelings, started work secretly on picture of my eyeless dream-image.
8 When inspecting it before destruction, realised that nose, mouth and chin were those of Miss Cavilege. I had never set eyes on de Castro.
9 Common sense tells me that I had no hand in de Castro tragedy, but dislike having painted secret malicious picture, even though destroyed.
This ninefold apologia Mainbarrow showed to Dr Hasterton, whom he found it necessary to consult some four months later after reading in the Sunday Post an article headed 'Telekinetic Homicide'. This famous psychiatrist, having told John to come back in ten days, found occasion in the meantime to look up their mutual acquaintance, Professor Sedley.
'I remember,' said Hasterton, 'reading an article of yours not so very long ago on the work of John Mainbarrow. Do you happen to have seen any of the things he did in Kongea or since his return?'
'Oh, yes! I was round at his studio last Tuesday afternoon.'
'Any change in style? Deterioration, perhaps?'
'I shouldn't say so, though it may take him some time to get the tropical sun out of his eyes. Personally, I liked what I saw very much. But why do you ask?'
'Because—this between our two selves—he's under an illusion that all his recent output is in the spirit, even by the spirit, of a dead man called de Castro. I can deal with the case all right—there's nothing very novel about it—but before starting to do so I needed an authoritative judgment as to whether there has or has not been any real change in his work. Many thanks, Professor, for giving it me.'
A fortnight later, Mainbarrow stood with Hasterton in front of a reconstruction of the Kongean bathroom picture, executed by him at the latter's order.
'That's excellent,' the psychiatrist commented, 'but before I purchase it (which I insist on your allowing me to do) I want you to put in eyes—unseeing eyes. Not blind eyes, mind you, but the eyes of a man who has no intellectual or aesthetic outlook or mental vision.'
'Oh! but de Castro mayn't have been as bad as all that!'
'What's it got to do with de Castro? Now do as I tell you, please, and finish your picture to the text, "They have eyes but see not".'
The new title, John found, necessitated a new picture with a fresh conception not associable with de Castro or any other individual. In his painting of it he thus found a way out of what he later used to call his 'de Castro complex'. The canvas was favourably noticed by critics of his next show and its associations for him became entirely gratifying. He has, indeed, been known to laugh and joke about his 'de Castro period'.
Recent letters from Kongea tell of the arrival there of an extremely good-looking and well-to-do Chief Justice. He is unmarried as yet, but Miss Cavilege is reported as hot on his scent.
I am no student of aetiology, but lying in my hot bath of a wintry morning and watching the steam precipitate on the window-panes I am struck by the fact that the resultant rivulets seldom if ever follow the same courses today as they did yesterday. It is remarkable how often a down-speeding globule of water will unforseeably take an abrupt turn to right or left, as does the electric fluid in a discharge of lightning. There must, of course, be cause for each twist and turn, though unperceivable, and similarly there must be cause for every twist and turn of human experience. Such causes can seldom be sensed with certainty even by the human agent, or patient, whose behaviour is determined by them: their recognition by an outside observer is still more problematical. Nevertheless, I believe myself to have stumbled on connected links in a chain of events that culminated in the sudden and violent death of my bachelor cousin, Herbert Sidden, at the age of forty-three.
The coroner's verdict was death by misadventure. Herbert had been knocked down and killed where the footpath from Haddenham Green used to cross the railway on the level. The present footbridge was erected after (possibly because of) the accident. On rounding the curve by the tile factory the driver of a down excursion train saw him stooping right in the middle of the track. Though he blew his whistle, Herbert never moved and a few seconds later a broken bleeding body lay in the six-foot way. Nobody else witnessed the fatality and the only object found by the police on the sleepers of the crossing was, irrelevantly enough it seemed, a jellyfish. This, it was ascertained, had dropped from the toy bucket of a small boy on his way home from paddling. Possibly, the coroner remarked, the deceased had slipped on it; but there was no evidence to support the conjecture.
There was certainly no ground for suspicion of suicide. My cousin had inherited a comfortable income, and his enjoyment of it as a leisured litterateur was without ill health or other detraction. Of his numerous acquaintances many would have welcomed a greater intimacy, but he inclined towards seclusion rather than society. In myself he seemed to take a mild cousinly interest suggestive more of curiosity than of liking. It was, therefore, a surprise to find that he had left me five thousand pounds, free of duty, together with the whole of his not inconsiderable library. During my inspection of its contents I came across the two manuscript volumes and a scrapbook which, if I am not mistaken, afford clues to the problem of the testator's end.
The older manuscript book, much smudged and dog-eared, bears in an unformed hand the endorsement 'prayrs and pomes'; the second is headed in firm well-written capital letters 'JUVENILIA'. Between their respective contents there is great difference both in matter and style. Verses in the earlier have an authentic ring of childhood and the sentiments which they express are neither affected nor precocious. They are devoid of punctuation, as the following five examples will show:
plese help me god
to be quite good
and never rude
or cross or odd
so when i die
or the werld ends
we may be freinds
up in the sky *
* Note. At first reading I thought the order of the rhyming strange for a small boy, but I afterwards remembered that he must have sat through many sermons in the family pew at Haddenham confronted by a mural tablet whose inscription ended with:
There lyeth here
But dust and bone:
The soul is flown
To Heaven's sphere.
I felt sad and Mary cried
when the poor canarry died
we berried him in the chiken run
and hated god for what bed done
in saxling church on Saturday
we herd aunt madge the organ play
she did the hyms a trifle sadly
the sarms and other peices badly
the railway carrage keeps quite still
but things outside it fly
mile on mile pole after pole
the telygraff wires streak by
up and down, down and up
scratching along the sky
a bush comes sliding down the hedge
the fence dives into a pond
green woods like catapillers crorl
eating the hills beyond
yesterday we found a jellifsh
nanny said it were a smelly fish
so we berried it in sand
the funarel was grand
nanny says she does not know
where good jellifishes go
but she thort the chances are
that jellifsh is now a star
In contrast to the foregoing, the verses in 'Juvenilia' are patently not the work of a child, even if a moiety of them may perhaps have been written in revision of earlier efforts or have reflected memories of childhood. They leave the impression that their author must have taken pains to trick them out for grown-up recital or even perhaps for publication. Two specimens of such fake-stuff will suffice.
MR BROWN UNDER EXAMINATION
As we went walking down the town
Whom should we meet but Mr Brown?
Auntie says that she has never
Met a person half as clever,
So we thought that he'd know what
She and Uncle Tom do not:
Why God allows good men to die
And how do babies come and why.
But Mr Brown behaved so queerly;
He made a face and said 'O really!'
TO A JELLYFISH
Out of proper respect for you, Sir,
I shall call you Mr Medusa
(A name that I took
From our animal book);
Gentlemen in Debrett or Kelly
Don't have names like Fish, A. Jelly—
The sophistication of this last piece is in strong contrast to the naïveté of 'funarel'. I have selected these two verses for special citation and reference because no less than four of the 'pomes' and nine of the 'Juvenilia' contain allusions to jellyfish or medusae. They appear, indeed, to have become an obsession. In the Juvenilia, for instance, there is a painful parody of Shelley's 'Skylark' beginning, 'Hail to thee, blithe jelly, Fish thou never wert'; and, even worse, a travesty of an Easter hymn in which the terminal Hallelujahs are replaced by 'Jellyhoohahs'.
Pastings in the scrap-book show a similarly large proportion of newspaper and magazine cuttings on the same subject and even excerpts from books. For example, there is an account taken from the Southshire Daily News of the 17th September, 1902, of an experimental tank for sea anemones and jellyfish in the Bournepool aquarium, and a letter from a correspondent to the Borehaven Gazette recording measurements of a giant jellyfish found on the beach below Corley Head. Its diameter was exactly the length of the correspondent's umbrella stick. In another cutting a 'Lover of Nature' reported having seen a weasel emerge from a tamarisk hedge, dash down the muddy bank of a creek and return with a jellyfish in its mouth. It is indeed amazing that a man of my cousin's intelligence and education should have accumulated such a litter of nonsense and misinformation. His childhood's prayer against becoming 'odd' had clearly been unanswered.
Oddities of taste and interest seldom conduce to mental or psychological well-being. In Herbert's case the jellyfish motif appears to have become queerly associated with his tendency to dabble in clairvoyance and mysticism, as the following typewritten entry in the scrap-book will illustrate. It is headed in his handwriting: 'Copied from Captain Philip Smythe's Geographical and Historical Relation of a Hitherto Undescribed Island in the South Seas, London, MDCCIV.'
The natives on this coast are adept soothsayers and tellers of fortune, to which end they employ divers ingenious devices; whereof I deem this peculiar to them that whenever there be high winds and sea they will diligently search the beaches for jellyfishes of which (there being in that region no diurnal rise nor fall of tides) none will be stranded in fair weathers. The same being found they will in no wise move or touch lest it lose virtue thereby but will bring to it a seer or magus for his divination. If the number of coloured rings within the transparency be fewer or greater than four, which is the common order, it is held of excellent augury for a revelation. The magus will regard the fish without nictitation until the coloured rings appear to him to turn in a revolution contrary to that of the sun, when he will cry in the native tongue 'camphui', that is, 'I descend!' Any that be with him shall then keep silence until he say 'timphui', that is, 'I ascend!'; whereafter he will recite to them the revelation, if one there be. In the mean space he will have fallen into a dream or trance, the manner of which was thus explained to me. The apparent rotation of the rings will by slow degrees become a gyration of the whole substance, waxing faster and yet more fast, until the magus is as a man gazing into a vortex wherein he soon feels sucked down into utter darkness. If a prophecy be vouchsafed he will now hear it as if chanted from afar; but if there be no prophecy he will hear but a hissing and seething of waters whereat he shall not tempt the oracle beyond its sufferance but cry forthwith 'timphui' and declare that there is no revelation. If any should tempt the oracle unduly or misstate the message given he will haply suffer the fate that befell the arch-magus Rangitapha as described on page 57 of this Relation.
Beneath this excerpt my cousin had written a note as follows: 'N.B. I have not troubled to copy the account of Rangitapha's death as it was clearly brought about by quite ordinary misadventure.'
My last selection from the scrap-book will be of a final entry in my cousin's handwriting, initialed by him over a date some two months prior to his end. It runs thus:
I fancy that my experiments in divination by medusae would strike most people as folly and waste of time. I find them, however, of absorbing interest and am deeply grateful to old Willerton for lending me Smythe's South Seas Relation. I suppose the process to be akin to crystal-gazing but for me the results have so far been more encouraging. I have twice now heard the hissing of waters in the vortex and yesterday afternoon a medusa, dropped by some child on the old barge wharf, yielded an even more promising reward for my mental and ocular concentration. This probably indicates that I now achieve a more complete and effective abstraction than when I first started my experiments. Be that as it may, I yesterday distinctly and unmistakably heard, above the hiss and gurgle of waters, the screech of a locomotive whistle and roar of a train. Unfortunately, the hissing and gurgling caused me to call 'timphui' before there was any further development and I must now possess my soul in patience until another marooned medusa turns up to tell me what the engine whistle and roar of a train can have portended. I shall not allow myself to be cheated of a prophecy again by 'noises off'.
Since reading the above I have had little doubt as to the causation of my cousin's death. I am thankful to believe that it must have been instantaneous and painless. The shadow cast before it by a coming event is mercifully not always recognisable.
David Crispwood and Dudley Lenbury sat in deck-chairs on the lawn of the Residency at Kokupatta. Schoolfellows at Ruggenham, they had not met again until today. Both had in the meantime done well, David in the Kongean Civil Service and Dudley in the family business of Scrutton and Lenbury, jewellers and silversmiths. The two were far from alike: David fair, short and stocky; Dudley thin, tall and dark. In character also they were dissimilar: David communicative and congenial, Dudley introspective and reserved. Nevertheless, they had been inseparable at school and their present chatter in the Kongean twilight reflected a renewal of mutual liking and understanding.
'A District Commissioner's job,' Crispwood was saying, 'is full of snags and surprises. Take my own case. I counted myself lucky to be posted to Kokupatta but within a month of my arrival here we've had first a flood and then a cyclone—all our crops ruined and the fishing fleet smashed up. As a result we're short of food and are having to get supplies down from Sadilena. The main problem, however, is their distribution, and I find both the headman and his people most uncooperative.'
'Uncooperative? But surely they don't want to starve?'
'Not exactly want to,' resumed Crispwood, 'but they're suffering from a sort of fatalism or superstitious apathy. By the way, Dudley, hasn't your business something to do with precious stones?'
'Everything to do with them. But what's the connection between my family business and your people's fatalism or apathy?'
A servant appearing at this moment with a tray of bottles and glasses, Crispwood poured out two tumblers of whisky-and-soda before replying.
'No connection,' he said, 'except that it won't bore you too much perhaps if I tell you about a local ceremony that has to do both with jewels and with fatalism.'
'Go ahead then, I could bear with anything over whisky like this. Mawson's blue label, isn't it?'
'Yes, good stuff. Well, the Kongeans, as you may have heard, are polytheistic and their pantheon reflects human society to the extent that its lady members are the danger spots. Up country they worship a truculent goddess named Vahrunda but here on the Coast all our troubles are ascribed to a she-god of the waters, Situwohela, who manages or mismanages the tides, the waves, the rivers and the rain, so that she requires propitiation by cultivator and fisherman alike. At the moment this good lady is said to be in high dudgeon at having been cheated by her votaries. Every year on the night of full moon in the month Kashti of the Kongean Kalendar a sapphire is sacrificed to her by being thrown ceremoniously into the lagoon. This year, according to my secret information, a bead of blue glass was substituted and the real sapphire traded to a gem-merchant from Takeokuta. The local priest was taken by a crocodile on Tuesday while bathing, so Situwohela's got even with him all right. But she's still without her sapphire and the offering of a specially fine one is timed for eleven minutes past eleven tomorrow night, the next full moon after Kashti. In the meanwhile, the natives won't do anything to avert or mitigate the results of her punishment of them by storm and flood; that's what I meant by their fatalism or superstitious apathy. I can hope for some measure of co-operation from them perhaps after tomorrow night.'
'I should be interested to see that ceremony,' Lenbury remarked. 'Is there by any chance a rest-house where I could put up tomorrow night after you've gone on circuit?'
'No, but you're welcome to stay on here, as I shall be leaving cooky and the house-boy behind. They'll look after you all right and I'll tell old Punchaya the headman to let you stand by him at the lagoon. Provided that you don't ask to examine the sapphire—for I expect that they'll be more than usually touchy about that after the recent swindle—the people will be honoured by a white man's presence. I should like to be there myself, but I can't alter my circuit programme at short notice. Don't expect too much of a show, though, for these country people are no ritualists and the whole ceremony will be got through in less than ten minutes. Hullo! That's the dinner gong.'
As they strolled from lawn to verandah the nearly full moon rose between the coconut stems. Its light, slightly obscured by curls of smoke from a pile of burning fronds beneath the palms, looked curiously blue in contrast with the red glow of the embers.
'I have often wondered,' mused Lenbury, 'what can have been the origin of the phrase "once in a blue moon". Anyhow, that moon seems blue enough.'
'A good omen perhaps, for it happens to be Situwohela's liturgical colour. That's why they offer her sapphires. Mind that broken doorstep!'
The offering of the sapphire was not, as Crispwood had forewarned, much of a show; but Lenbury had been impressed by three things. First and foremost by the size and beauty of the stone. What wouldn't his firm have given for it, and how his fingers had itched to touch and turn it over! Secondly, there was the actual tenderer of the oblation: a youth barely in the twenties and reminding Lenbury by his charm and sensuousness of expression of the Bacchus in Velasquez' 'Los Borrachos'.
Completely nude except for a light blue loin-cloth, the moonlight revealed his body and limbs in all their Grecian symmetry. The pale bronzeness of his skin, not over-oiled in the manner of most Kongeans, showed him to be of higher caste than the peasants and fishermen who stood by. The mere throwing of a jewel into the water would of itself have been neither graceful nor impressive, but enacted by this youth it partook of both these qualities.
The third thing that struck Lenbury, and irked him exceedingly, was the, to him, wanton waste of a stone beyond price. It was, indeed, this last consideration that was keeping him awake and restless in the hot Kongean night after return to the Residency. Finding that he could not lie still for heat of mind and body he strolled out in his pyjamas onto the lawn and on beyond it to the spit of sand and coral that separated sea and lagoon. There was no one in sight and, having taken off his pyjamas, he waded nakedly into the cool brackish water on the landward side. The bottom was smooth and sandy but here and there he trod on a pebble or mussel and, each time that he did so, bent down to pull the object out for inspection. Perhaps this reflected memories of paddling as a boy for cowries and fan-shells; or were his dippings motivated by something less distant in time and not so innocent? He was now in deeper water and soon found himself swimming, a favourite exercise.
To cool his brain, perhaps, he swam largely under water and continued to grab pebbles from the sand, bringing them to the surface for inspection. How repetitive habits ingrained in childhood can be! This one didn't look like a pebble, though. Good heavens! Surely it couldn't be Situwohela's sapphire? Why yes, it certainly was; how extraordinary that his swim should have brought him to the Beach of Offering and that his pyjamas should be lying on the shore not thirty yards away. He dried himself before putting them on again for, oddly enough, he had brought a towel with him on his stroll. He felt cooler now after that bathe, even somewhat chilly, and went back to the Residency at a brisk run, clutching every now and again at the pyjama pocket as if to make sure that something was there. It was.
Before getting back to bed he had satisfied himself that his make-believe of a chance swim and a chance find was very credible indeed. Indeed, if he had not caught his satisfied look of achievement in the dressing-table mirror he might have convinced himself of its truth. As it was he felt it an adequate sop to his conscience to murmur contentedly to himself, 'Well, I've prevented a damned waste anyway.'
His dreams were pleasant enough. One was that the Kongean youth looked in on him from the verandah window and smiled. It was not until he was shaving next morning that he doubted whether the smile had been altogether kindly. However, on the train journey from Kokupatta to Takeokuta he dismissed the whole night's happenings from his mind and read the English newspapers that had reached him by yesterday's mail. Only once or twice did he feel for his wallet to make certain that an important new bulge in it was there.
Next day he embarked on the Northumbria for England, and we take leave of him sitting in his cabin, the door of which he has bolted, sorting and inspecting the various stones bought by him for the firm during his tour. The best of them is a large sapphire which he is examining intensely under a magnifying glass.
It is not the purpose of this narrative to relate the history of what was later to become known to the law courts as the Lettiswood Sapphire. Its association with the firm of Scrutton and Lenbury terminated on its sale by them to a Colonel Barwell, from whom it subsequently passed to its Lettiswood owners. All that need concern us is that the success of his son's tour prompted Mr Lenbury Senior to retire from partnership in the firm, which by common consent of the Scruttons devolved on young Dudley. He was thus at the early age of twenty-nine comfortably established and in a position, had he had the inclination, to marry. That, indeed, was his father's desire, but Dudley's thoughts were differently occupied. He had been brought up to a high sense of personal honour, and it worried him, therefore, that he had prevaricated to the firm about his acquisition of the sapphire. To have told the truth would have lost him the esteem of the Scruttons and of his father. They would quite likely have insisted upon a return of the stone to Kokupatta for reimmersion in the lagoon and have written him off as an unprincipled and untrustworthy agent.
He had represented himself, therefore, as having struck a marvellously good bargain with a Kongean gem-merchant and was now reaping a golden harvest from the lie. Nor was an unquiet conscience his sole trouble. He had begun to have doubts about his eyesight, a matter of crucial importance to his work. Had he perhaps tried it too much by his repeated examinations of the sapphire on the voyage home? These had been made not merely daily but almost hourly, by lamplight as well as daylight, for the reason that the stone seemed to him to exhibit strange variations in colour: always of course blue but sometimes darker and sometimes lighter. Once or twice after locking the stone away he had seemed to see things as through a mist, so that the white paint of the cabin and the enamel of the wash-hand-basin looked faintly bluish. This illusion had had recurrences since his disembarkation and quite ordinary pieces of crystal sometimes appeared to him to have a blueish iridescence about them, such as a tot of gin will give to a glass of tonic water. This, he quickly realised, was a grave impediment to the work of a dealer in jewels, and one afternoon, when a lady wanted to exchange some aquamarines for other stones, he had felt obliged to call in an assistant for fear of taking over worthless trash. He had managed to seek this advice without raising suspicions of his own inability; but, he told himself, this sort of thing must not be allowed to go on indefinitely.
And then, to make bad worse, there arrived a letter from David Crispwood with the following postscript:
Since writing this letter, I've heard that poor old Situwohela has had another dirty trick played on her. That sapphire which you saw chucked into the lagoon is reputed to have been what the natives call a teshta dahima or 'spilling stone'. It's all nonsense, of course, but certain rubies and sapphires are credited here with spilling their colour on the eyes of their owners, so that they see everything red or blue. What tripe! Still it remains to be seen what Situwohela makes of it. As she is described in Kongean poetry as the 'Blue Water Queen', she may take it as a compliment. Let's hope so, at any rate. I have reopened the envelope to add this piece of news, as I'm sure it will amuse you.
Lenbury was not at all amused: far from it. It was nonsense, of course, as Crispwood had written, but uncomfortable nonsense. The oculist whom he had consulted a week ago had categorically assured him that there was no vestige of glaucoma or other eye trouble, and had merely advised him to take a rest from his work so far as it involved examination of stones or, better still, to take a complete holiday for a fortnight or so. He had decided on the latter and would run down on Friday to Hugh Blessingworth's place on the Southshire coast. Meanwhile, today (Wednesday), he was to lunch with Hugh at the Anchusa Restaurant, with the prospect of a real curry. Before leaving the office, he tore Crispwood's letter into small pieces and burned them in the ashtray. Fancy David's having time to write such twaddle!
The Anchusa's curry was excellent, and its service by oriental waiters unobtrusively attentive. Old Easterners were wont to pronounce the Anchusa the only place where they could recapture the pleasures of a Sunday tiffin in the tropics. Lenbury, with a comfortable sense of repletion, was enjoying his black coffee and green chartreuse when his host enquired whether he still indulged his taste for good pictures. Replying in the affirmative, Lenbury regretted that he had little time nowadays for visiting the Galleries, but that he was thoroughly enjoying the volumes of reproductions from the great masters issued by the Parnassus Press. He had placed a running order for them. Blessingworth agreed as to their excellence and mentioned as particularly good the Velasquez volume. 'I wonder,' he continued, 'if you remember his picture of "The Drinkers". I've forgotten its Spanish title. You do? Well, if you turn round now, you'll see the dead spit of young Bacchus waiting at the table behind you. He struck me, just now, as trying to attract your attention; but you don't ordinarily lunch here, do you? Good God, man, what's up?'
Lenbury had upset his coffee cup and was noticeably shaking. Within a few seconds however he had composed himself and muttered something about the after-effects of malaria. Perhaps he had better be getting along in case he were taken again that way. He was more sorry than he could say that he had spoiled the end of a perfect lunch, but—At this point, Blessingworth cut in with a sympathetic 'That's all right, old chap. I'll see you into a taxi. Come along.'
Alone in the taxi Lenbury cursed himself for a neurotic. How lucky that nobody but his old friend Blessingworth had witnessed his foolishness! Or was it altogether foolishness? He had become used to seeing the Kongean youth in occasional dreams; but Blessingworth was no dreamer. There might, of course, be some Kongeans on the Anchusa staff, which would be one solution. No it wouldn't, though, because what had struck him most about the youth at the lagoon that night had been his utter dissimilarity to other Kongeans. 'A queer business,' he muttered to himself, 'and beastly, too; damned beastly.'
His murmurings in this strain continued as he crossed the pavement to the entrance of Stonegate Mansions, where he rented a flat on the third floor, and must have been audible, or half-audible, to passers-by. Otherwise, there was no reason why the taxi-man should put a forefinger to his cranium and wink knowingly at the hall-porter.
Lenbury spent Thursday in bed, feeling in no mood to do anything or see anybody. When Blessingworth rang up to ask how he was, he replied that he felt better than he usually did after a malarial attack and would certainly be able to make the train journey to Blaybury on the morrow. In point of fact, Lenbury had never had malaria; but Blessingworth would have no means of discovering this, and a safe lie is an easy one. Replacing the telephone receiver (the instrument was on a table at his bedside), Lenbury noticed that his sheets and pillowcase hat been given too much blue in the washing. He would have to register a complaint in the laundry book; or better, perhaps, see the oculist again before doing so, for the sheets were now looking not so blue after all.
Lying on his back he spent the rest of the morning in a series of self-imposed experiments, shutting his eyes and then opening them suddenly or gradually; staring now at the window, now at the ceiling, and now at the walls; winking, blinking, half-closing his eyelids or squinting through the finger-chinks of an upheld hand. Sometimes he detected a blueness in his vision, sometimes not: there appeared to be no law or order about it, and the only result of his trials was a splitting headache.
This, however, did not deter him from a protracted experiment of a different kind in the afternoon and evening. The idea had occurred to him that, in any assemblage of people, quite a number might bear some resemblance to the Velasquez 'Bacchus'. He therefore went laboriously through whole piles of illustrated papers and photograph albums with the aid of a magnifying glass; and, by nightfall, was seeing Bacchuses everywhere, a reductio ad absurdum. Such sleep as came to him that night was the dull torpor of exhaustion.
Rising at eight o'clock next morning, he decided to brace himself for a brisk holiday by taking a cold bath. On second thoughts however he turned on the hot tap full-cock before getting in. While dressing he whistled a jaunty air from some old comic opera and picked out a cheerful claret-coloured tie. Down at the breakfast-table however he was very soon at his experiments again. Were the egg-cups really a delicate shade of blue or were they a pale cream, as he seemed to remember them? The waiter, to whom he referred the point, appeared to take the question as a joke, for he replied with: 'You're all right there, sir; everything looks a bit blue the night after, don't it?'
At the railway terminus he kept his eye steadily on the ticket counter, in case some Bacchus of a booking clerk should leer at him through the pigeon-hole. Seated, however, in the corner of a first-class carriage, he reverted to yesterday's experiment and began to stare at the faces of all who passed him on the platform or in the corridor. A plain-clothes policeman on duty at the station put him down as an amateur detective. Nobody appeared to want to be his fellow-passenger and, having the compartment to himself, he was able to concentrate his thoughts introspectively. First, he silently reviewed the whole of his experiences since his meeting with Crispwood at Kokupatta, reconstructing every detail. Then, as the train flashed through Ormington Junction, he suddenly straightened himself and sat stiffly erect, speaking out loud to the empty carriage.
'These occurrences,' he said, 'must be either hallucinations or real happenings. If the former, then I'm going mad. I'm nervy, I admit; but I've never felt saner in my life. Anyhow, it was Blessingworth, not I, who saw young Bacchus at the Anchusa; and Blessingworth is certainly not mad. So hallucinations are out of it and I'm up against real happenings. I've never believed in the supernatural up till now, but I'm quite ready to accept the verdict of my senses. The oculist can't explain why I'm seeing things blue; Crispwood's letter does explain it. Well, nobody has ever died of wearing blue goggles and I'm not going to worry. As for that Kongean youth, he may have come to England for all I know or care. If he or Situwohela are on my tracks they can jolly well do their damnedest; I can't undo what I did, and I'm not going to let myself be disturbed by their pranks. So there!'
Lenbury had been thumping the floor with his stick as he spoke and now matched his thumps to the rhythm of the wheels. Looking up at the notice below the communication cord, he began singing the words to a tune very like 'Nuts in May':
To stop the train pull down the chain,
Pull down the chain, pull down the chain,
To stop the train pull down the chain
and then, mimicking an intonation of the Litany:
Penalty for improper use; five pounds.
An observer, had he had one, would have guessed him slightly and cheerfully drunk.
Such a diagnosis was actually formed by Blessingworth as they drove in the car from Chindley station to Blaybury, for Lenbury enthused the whole way over the blueness of the hills and of the sea although the former appeared that morning to Blessingworth particularly green, and the latter unattractively grey. Anyhow, he had beside him a far livelier and easier guest than the one whom he had seen into the taxi on Wednesday; and his wife, Margaret, wouldn't need to bother overmuch about entertaining him.
It was mid July; the weather windless and hot. Tea, therefore, was served on the terrace and, during it, Blessingworth explained that he and Margaret would have to leave Lenbury to his own devices for an hour or so after dinner as they had to attend a Flower Show committee meeting at a quarter to nine.
'A guest left alone finds joys of his own,' said Lenbury. 'Isn't that a proverb or something?'
Blessingworth hadn't heard it before and went on to talk of the new swimming pool he was having constructed beyond the rose garden. 'It'll be ready for use tomorrow afternoon or Sunday morning,' he said; 'they were fiddling about with the pump and filter all this morning, Tomkins tells me. It's twelve feet deep below the springboard; so you'll be able, Dudley, to practise your dives. Did you get any bathing in Kongea?'
'Lots!' Lenbury replied, and added facetiously: 'You should have seen me diving for jewels. They grow on the bottom there, you know, whole bunches of 'em. You ought to sow some in your pool and ask me down for the harvest.'
Before coming down to dinner Margaret looked in at her husband's dressing-room. 'What on earth's the matter with Dudley?' she said. 'He's just like a boy back from a prep. school. It isn't like him at all.'
'Holiday spirit, I suppose,' returned her husband; 'but I agree that it's damned silly. Due to his malaria, perhaps.'
Lenbury's facetiousness and exuberance persisted throughout dinner, so much so that host and hostess were relieved to get away to the Flower Show meeting, leaving their guest to take a stroll 'in the cool of the evening'.
The evening, in fact, was not cool, but oppressively warm; and Lenbury, standing on the springboard of the new swimming-pool, which he had not been slow to discover, thought the blue coolness below him most inviting. There was a waist-high rockery wall round the pool, securing its privacy; and it was supper-time, he reflected, in the servants' hall. He need fear no intrusion, therefore, and decided to be the first to enjoy a swim in the new bath. Having stripped himself bare, he gave a little jump or two on the springboard and then dived in.
'Yes, sir, it were a nasty mess and no mistake,' Tomkins deponed to the Coroner; 'head all bursted in, like as if 'e'd dived in. There wouldn't be no sense in that though, seeing as 'ow the bath was empty. He was took giddy, I guess. No, sir: not a drop of water, nor 'adn't been neither; for the cement were still a-drying. They practised the pump straight into the overflow. No, again, sir: there ain't no blue or green tiles, only white ones, same as you sees in the railway lavat'ry. There weren't nought on top of 'em, neither, 'cept a chip of blue glass, might be the size of an 'azel-nut, as my young lad picked up in the rose bed and throwed in for play. I mind fetching 'im a clip on the ear for it, too.'
Death by misadventure.
'I cannot explain what exactly it is about him; but I don't like your Mr Clarence Love, and I'm sorry that you ever asked him to stay.'
Thus Richard Dreyton to his wife Elinor on the morning of Christmas Eve.
'But one must remember the children, Richard. You know what marvellous presents he gives them.'
'Much too marvellous. He spoils them. Yet you'll have noticed that none of them likes him. Children have a wonderful intuition in regard to the character of grown-ups.'
'What on earth are you hinting about his character? He's a very nice man.'
Dreyton shuffled off his slippers in front of the study fire and began putting on his boots.
'I wonder, darling, whether you noticed his face just now at breakfast, when he opened that letter with the Australian stamps on?'
'Yes; he did seem a bit upset: but not more so than you when you get my dressmaker's bill!'
Mrs Dreyton accompanied this sally with a playful pat on her husband's back as he leant forward to do up his laces.
'Well, Elinor, all that I can say is that there's something very fishy about his antipodean history. At five-and-twenty, he left England a penniless young man and, heigh presto! he returns a stinking plutocrat at twenty-eight. And how? What he's told you doesn't altogether tally with what he's told me; but, cutting out the differences, his main story is that he duly contacted old Nelson Joy, his maternal uncle, whom he went out to join, and that they went off together, prospecting for gold. They struck it handsomely; and then the poor old uncle gets a heart-stroke or paralysis, or something, in the bush, and bids Clarence leave him there to die and get out himself before the food gives out. Arrived back in Sydney, Clarence produces a will under which he is the sole beneficiary, gets the Court to presume old Joy's death, and bunks back here with the loot.'
Mrs Dreyton frowned. 'I can see nothing wrong or suspicious about the story,' she said, 'but only in your telling of it.'
'No! No! In his telling of it. He never gets the details quite the same twice running, and I'm certain that he gave a different topography to their prospecting expedition this year from what he did last. It's my belief that he did the uncle in, poor old chap!'
'Don't be so absurd, Richard; and please remember that he's our guest, and that we must be hospitable: especially at Christmas. Which reminds me: on your way to office, would you mind looking in at Harridge's and making sure that they haven't forgotten our order for their Santa Claus tomorrow? He's to be here at seven; then to go on to the Simpsons at seven-thirty, and to end up at the Joneses at eight. It's lucky our getting three households to share the expenses: Harridge's charge each of us only half their catalogued fee. If they could possibly send us the same Father Christmas as last year it would be splendid. The children adored him. Don't forget to say, too, that he will find all the crackers, hats, musical toys and presents inside the big chest in the hall. Just the same as last year. What should we do nowadays without the big stores? One goes to them for everything.'
'We certainly do,' Dreyton agreed; 'and I can't see the modern child putting up with the amateur Father Christmas we used to suffer from. I shall never forget the annual exhibition Uncle Bertie used to make of himself, or the slippering I got when I stuck a darning-needle into his behind under pretence that I wanted to see if he was real! Well, so long, old girl: no, I won't forget to call in at Harridge's.'
By the time the festive Christmas supper had reached the dessert stage, Mrs Dreyton fully shared her husband's regret that she had ever asked Clarence Love to be of the party. The sinister change that had come over him on receipt of the letter from Australia became accentuated on the later arrival of a telegram which, he said, would necessitate his leaving towards the end of the evening to catch the eight-fifteen northbound express from King's Pancras. His valet had already gone ahead with the luggage and, as it had turned so foggy, he had announced his intention of following later by Underground, in order to avoid the possibility of being caught in a traffic-jam.
It is strange how sometimes the human mind can harbour simultaneously two entirely contradictory emotions. Mrs Dreyton was consumed with annoyance that any guest of hers should be so inconsiderate as to terminate his stay in the middle of a Christmas party; but was, at the same time, impatient to be rid of such a skeleton at the feast. One of the things that she had found attractive in Clarence Love had been an unfailing fund of small talk, which, if not brilliant, was at any rate bright and breezy. He possessed, also, a pleasant and frequent smile and, till now, had always been assiduous in his attention to her conversation. Since yesterday, however, he had turned silent, inattentive, and dour in expression. His presentation to her of a lovely emerald brooch had been unaccompanied by any greeting beyond an unflattering and perfunctory 'Happy Christmas!' He had also proved unforgivably oblivious of the mistletoe, beneath which, with a careful carelessness, she stationed herself when she heard him coming down to breakfast. It was, indeed, quite mortifying; and, when her husband described the guest as a busted balloon, she had neither the mind nor the heart to gainsay him.
Happily for the mirth and merriment of the party Dreyton seemed to derive much exhilaration from the dumb discomfiture of his wife's friend, and Elinor had never seen or heard her husband in better form. He managed, too, to infect the children with his own ebullience; and even Miss Potterby (the governess) reciprocated his fun. Even before the entry of Father Christmas it had thus become a noisy, and almost rowdy, company.
Father Christmas's salutation, on arrival, was in rhymed verse and delivered in the manner appropriate to pantomime. His lines ran thus:
To Sons of Peace
Yule brings release
From worry at this tide;
But men of crime
This holy time
Their guilty heads need hide.
So never fear,
Ye children dear,
But innocent sing 'Nowell';
For the Holy Rood
Shall save the good,
And the bad be burned in hell.
This is my carol
And Nowell my parole.
There was clapping of hands at this, for there is nothing children enjoy so much as mummery; especially if it be slightly mysterious. The only person who appeared to dislike the recitation was Love, who was seen to stop both ears with his fingers at the end of the first verse and to look ill. As soon as he had made an end of the prologue, Santa Claus went ahead with his distribution of gifts, and made many a merry quip and pun. He was quick in the uptake, too; for the children put to him many a poser, to which a witty reply was always ready. The minutes indeed slipped by all too quickly for all of them, except Love, who kept glancing uncomfortably at his wrist-watch and was plainly in a hurry to go. Hearing him mutter that it was time for him to be off, Father Christmas walked to his side and bade him pull a farewell cracker. Having done so, resentfully it seemed, he was asked to pull out the motto and read it. His hands were now visibly shaking, and his voice seemed to have caught their infection. Very falteringly, he managed to stammer out the two lines of doggerel:
Re-united heart to heart
Love and joy shall never part.
'And now,' said Father Christmas, 'I must be making for the next chimney; and, on my way, sir, I will see you into the Underground.'
So saying he took Clarence Love by the left arm and led him with mock ceremony to the door, where he turned and delivered this epilogue:
Ladies and Gentlemen, goodnight!
Let not darkness you affright.
Aught of evil here today
Santa Claus now bears away.
At this point, with sudden dramatic effect, he clicked off the electric light switch by the door; and, by the time Dreyton had groped his way to it in the darkness and turned it on again, the parlour-maid (who was awaiting Love's departure in the hall) had let both him and Father Christmas out into the street.
'Excellent!' Mrs Dreyton exclaimed, 'quite excellent! One can always depend on Harridge's. It wasn't the same man as they sent last year; but quite as good, and more original, perhaps.'
'I'm glad he's taken Mr Love away,' said young Harold.
'Yes,' Dorothy chipped in; 'he's been beastly all day, and yesterday, too: and his presents aren't nearly as expensive as last year.'
'Shut up, you spoilt children!' the father interrupted. 'I must admit, though, that the fellow was a wet blanket this evening. What was that nonsense he read out about reunion?'
Miss Potterby had developed a pedagogic habit of clearing her throat audibly, as a signal demanding her pupils' attention to some impending announcement. She did it now, and parents as well as children looked expectantly towards her.
'The motto as read by Mr Love,' she declared, 'was so palpably inconsequent that I took the liberty of appropriating it when he laid the slip of paper back on the table. Here it is, and this is how it actually reads:
Be united heart to heart,
Love and joy shall never part.
That makes sense, if it doesn't make poetry. Mr Love committed the error of reading 'be united' as 'reunited' and of not observing the comma between the two lines.'
'Thank you, Miss Potterby; that, of course, explains it. How clever of you to have spotted the mistake and tracked it down!'
Thus encouraged, Miss Potterby proceeded to further corrective edification.
'You remarked just now, Mrs Dreyton, that the gentleman impersonating Father Christmas had displayed originality. His prologue and epilogue, however, were neither of them original, but corrupted versions of passages which you will find in Professor Borleigh's Synopsis of Nativity, Miracle and Morality Plays, published two years ago. I happen to be familiar with the subject, as the author is a first cousin of mine, once removed.'
'How interesting!' Dreyton here broke in; 'and now, Miss Potterby, if you will most kindly preside at the piano, we will dance Sir Roger de Coverley. Come on, children, into the drawing-room.'
On Boxing Day there was no post and no paper. Meeting Mrs Simpson in the Park that afternoon, Mrs Dreyton was surprised to hear that Father Christmas had kept neither of his two other engagements. 'It must have been that horrid fog,' she suggested; 'but what a shame! He was even better than last year:' by which intelligence Mrs Simpson seemed little comforted.
Next morning—the second after Christmas—there were two letters on the Dreytons' breakfast-table, and both were from Harridge's.
The first conveyed that firm's deep regret that their representative should have been prevented from carrying out his engagements in Pentland Square on Christmas night owing to dislocation of traffic caused by the prevailing fog.
'But he kept ours all right,' Mrs Dreyton commented. 'I feel so sorry for the Simpsons and the Joneses.'
The second letter cancelled the first, 'which had been written in unfortunate oversight of the cancellation of the order'.
'What on earth does that mean?' Mrs Dreyton ejaculated.
'Ask me another!' returned her husband. 'Got their correspondence mixed up, I suppose.',
In contrast to the paucity of letters, the morning newspapers seemed unusually voluminous and full of pictures. Mrs Dreyton's choice of what to read in them was not that of a highbrow. The headline that attracted her first attention ran 'XMAS ON UNDERGROUND', and, among other choice items, she learned how, at Pentland Street Station (their own nearest), a man dressed as Santa Claus had been seen to guide and support an invalid, or possibly tipsy, companion down the long escalator. The red coat, mask and beard were afterwards found discarded in a passage leading to the emergency staircase, so that even Santa's sobriety might be called into question. She was just about to retail this interesting intelligence to her husband when, laying down his own paper, he stared curiously at her and muttered 'Good God!'
'What on earth's the matter, dear?'
'A very horrible thing, Elinor. Clarence Love has been killed! Listen;' here he resumed his paper and began to read aloud: "The body of the man who fell from the Pentland Street platform on Christmas night in front of an incoming train has been identified as that of Mr Clarence Love, of I I Playfair Mansions. There was a large crowd of passengers on the platform at the time, and it is conjectured that he fell backwards off it while turning to expostulate with persons exerting pressure at his back. Nobody, however, in the crush, could have seen the exact circumstances of the said fatality."'
'Hush, dear! Here come the children. They mustn't know, of course. We can talk about it afterwards.'
Dreyton, however, could not wait to talk about it afterwards. The whole of the amateur detective within him had been aroused, and, rising early from the breakfast-table, he journeyed by tube to Harridge's, where he was soon interviewing a departmental sub-manager. No: there was no possibility of one of their representatives having visited Pentland Square on Christmas evening. Our Mr Droper had got hung up in the Shenton Street traffic-block until it was too late to keep his engagements there. He had come straight back to his rooms. In any case, he would not have called at Mr Dreyton's residence in view of the cancellation of the order the previous day. Not cancelled? But he took down the telephone message himself. Yes: here was the entry in the register. Then it must have been the work of some mischief-maker; it was certainly a gentleman's, and not a lady's voice. Nobody except he and Mr Droper knew of the engagement at their end, so the practical joker must have derived his knowledge of it from somebody in Mr Dreyton's household.
This was obviously sound reasoning and, on his return home, Dreyton questioned Mrs Timmins, the cook, in the matter. She was immediately helpful and forthcoming. One of them insurance gents had called on the morning before Christmas and had been told that none of us wanted no policies or such like. He had then turned conversational and asked what sort of goings-on there would be here for Christmas. Nothing, he was told, except old Father Christmas, as usual, out of Harridge's shop. Then he asked about visitors in the house, and was told as there were none except Mr Love, who, judging by the tip what he had given Martha when he stayed last in the house, was a wealthy and openhanded gentleman. Little did she think when she spoke those words as Mr Love would forget to give any tips or boxes at Christmas, when they were most natural and proper. But perhaps he would think better on it by the New Year and send a postal order. Dreyton thought it unlikely, but deemed it unnecessary at this juncture to inform Mrs Timmins of the tragedy reported in the newspaper.
At luncheon Mrs Dreyton found her husband unusually taciturn and preoccupied; but, by the time they had come to the cheese, he announced importantly that he had made up his mind to report immediately to the police certain information that had come into his possession. Miss Potterby and the children looked suitably impressed, but knew better than to court a snub by asking questions. Mrs Dreyton took the cue admirably by replying: 'Of course, Richard, you must do your duty!'
The inspector listened intently and jotted down occasional notes. At the end of the narration, he complimented the informant by asking whether he had formed any theory regarding the facts he reported. Dreyton most certainly had. That was why he had been so silent and absent-minded at lunch. His solution, put much more briefly than he expounded it to the inspector, was as follows.
Clarence Love had abandoned his uncle and partner in the Australian bush. Having returned to civilisation, got the Courts to presume the uncle's death, and taken probate of the will under which he was sole inheritor, Love returned to England a wealthy and still youngish man. The uncle, however (this was Dreyton's theory), did not die after his nephew's desertion, but was found and tended by bushmen. Having regained his power of locomotion, he trekked back to Sydney, where he discovered himself legally dead and his property appropriated by Love and removed to England. Believing his nephew to have compassed his death, he resolved to take revenge into his own hands. Having despatched a cryptic letter to Love containing dark hints of impending doom, he sailed for the Old Country and ultimately tracked Love down to the Dreytons' abode. Then, having in the guise of a travelling insurance agent ascertained the family's programme for Christmas Day, he planned his impersonation of Santa Claus. That his true identity, revealed by voice and accent, did not escape his victim was evidenced by the latter's nervous misreading of the motto in the cracker. Whether Love's death in the Underground was due to actual murder or to suicide enforced by despair and remorse, Dreyton hazarded no guess: either was possible under his theory.
The inspector's reception of Dreyton's hypothesis was less enthusiastic than his wife's.
'If you'll excuse me, Mr Dreyton,' said the former, 'you've built a mighty lot on dam' little. Still, it's ingenious and no mistake. I'll follow your ideas up and, if you'll call in a week's time, I may have something to tell you and one or two things, perhaps, to ask.'
'Why darling, how wonderful!' Mrs Dreyton applauded. 'Now that you've pieced the bits together so cleverly the thing's quite obvious, isn't it? What a horrible thing to have left poor old Mr Joy to die all alone in the jungle! I never really liked Clarence, and am quite glad now that he's dead. But of course we mustn't tell the children!'
Inquiries of the Australian Police elicited the intelligence that the presumption of Mr Joy's death had been long since confirmed by the discovery of his remains in an old prospecting pit. There were ugly rumours and suspicions against his nephew but no evidence on which to support them. On being thus informed by the inspector Dreyton amended his theory to the extent that the impersonator of Father Christmas must have been not Mr Joy himself, as he was dead, but a bosom friend determined to avenge him. This substitution deprived the cracker episode, on which Dreyton had imagined his whole story, of all relevance; and the inspector was quite frank about his disinterest in the revised version.
Mrs Dreyton also rejected it. Her husband's original theory seemed to her more obviously right and conclusive even than before. The only amendment required, and that on a mere matter of detail, was to substitute Mr Joy's ghost for Mr Joy: though of course one mustn't tell the children.
'But,' her husband remonstrated, 'you know that I don't believe in ghosts.'
'No, but your aunt Cecilia does; and she is such a clever woman. By the way, she called in this morning and left you a book to look at.'
'Yes, the collected ghost stories of M. R. James.'
'But the stupid old dear knows that I have them all in the original editions.'
'So she said: but she wants you to read the author's epilogue to the collection which, she says, is most entertaining. It's entitled "Stories I have tried to write". She said that she'd side-lined a passage that might interest you. The book's on that table by you. No, not that: the one with the black cover.'
Dreyton picked it up, found the marked passage and read it aloud.
There may be possibilities too in the Christmas cracker if the right people pull it and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.
'There is certainly,' Dreyton commented, 'some resemblance between James's idea and our recent experience. But he could have made a perfectly good yarn out of that theme without introducing ghosts.'
His wife's mood at that moment was for compromise rather than controversy.
'Well, darling,' she temporised, 'perhaps not exactly ghosts.'
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