Short Story Saturday – The Tryst

This week’s story is Algernon Blackwood’s The Tryst.

Algernon_Blackwood-3

THE TRYST

Je suis la première au rendez-vous. Je vous attends.

As he got out of the train at the little wayside station he remembered the conversation as if it had been yesterday, instead of fifteen years ago—and his heart went thumping against his ribs so violently that he almost heard it. The original thrill came over him again with all its infinite yearning. He felt it as he had felt it then—not with that tragic lessening the interval had brought to each repetition of its memory. Here, in the familiar scenery of its birth, he realised with mingled pain and wonder that the subsequent years had not destroyed, but only dimmed it. The forgotten rapture flamed back with all the fierce beauty of its genesis, desire at white heat. And the shock of the abrupt discovery shattered time. Fifteen years became a negligible moment; the crowded experiences that had intervened seemed but a dream. The farewell scene, the conversation on the steamer’s deck, were clear as of the day before. He saw the hand holding her big hat that fluttered in the wind, saw the flowers on the dress where the long coat was blown open a moment, recalled the face of a hurrying steward who had jostled them; he even heard the voices—his own and hers:

[2] “Yes,” she said simply; “I promise you. You have my word. I’ll wait——”

“Till I come back to find you,” he interrupted.

Steadfastly she repeated his actual words, then added: “Here; at home—that is.”

“I’ll come to the garden gate as usual,” he told her, trying to smile. “I’ll knock. You’ll open the gate—as usual—and come out to me.”

These words, too, she attempted to repeat, but her voice failed, her eyes filled suddenly with tears; she looked into his face and nodded. It was just then that her little hand went up to hold the hat on—he saw the very gesture still. He remembered that he was vehemently tempted to tear his ticket up there and then, to go ashore with her, to stay in England, to brave all opposition—when the siren roared its third horrible warning … and the ship put out to sea.


Fifteen years, thick with various incident, had passed between them since that moment. His life had risen, fallen, crashed, then risen again. He had come back at last, fortune won by a lucky coup—at thirty-five; had come back to find her, come back, above all, to keep his word. Once every three months they had exchanged the brief letter agreed upon: “I am well; I am waiting; I am happy; I am unmarried. Yours——.” For his youthful wisdom had insisted that no “man” had the right to keep “any woman” too long waiting; and she, thinking that letter brave and splendid, had insisted likewise that he was free—if freedom called him. They had laughed over this last phrase in their agreement. They put five years as the possible limit of separation. By then he would have won success, and obstinate parents would have nothing more to say.

But when the five years ended he was “on his uppers” in a western mining town, and with the end of ten in[3] sight those uppers, though changed, were little better, apparently, than patched and mended. And it was just then, too, that the change which had been stealing over him betrayed itself. He realised it abruptly, a sense of shame and horror in him. The discovery was made unconsciously—it disclosed itself. He was reading her letter as a labourer on a Californian fruit farm: “Funny she doesn’t marry—some one else!” he heard himself say. The words were out before he knew it, and certainly before he could suppress them. They just slipped out, startling him into the truth; and he knew instantly that the thought was fathered in him by a hidden wish. … He was older. He had lived. It was a memory he loved.

Despising himself in a contradictory fashion—both vaguely and fiercely—he yet held true to his boyhood’s promise. He did not write and offer to release her, as he knew they did in stories. He persuaded himself that he meant to keep his word. There was this fine, stupid, selfish obstinacy in his character. In any case, she would misunderstand and think he wanted to set free—himself. “Besides—I’m still—awfully fond of her,” he asserted. And it was true; only the love, it seemed, had gone its way. Not that another woman took it; he kept himself clean, held firm as steel. The love, apparently, just faded of its own accord; her image dimmed, her letters ceased to thrill, then ceased to interest him.

Subsequent reflection made him realise other details about himself. In the interval he had suffered hardships, had learned the uncertainty of life that depends for its continuance on a little food, but that food often hard to come by, and had seen so many others go under that he held it more cheaply than of old. The wandering instinct, too, had caught him, slowly killing the domestic impulse; he lost his desire for a settled place of abode, the desire for children of his own, lost the desire to marry at all. Also—he reminded himself with a smile—[4]he had lost other things: the expression of youth she was accustomed to and held always in her thoughts of him, two fingers of one hand, his hair! He wore glasses, too. The gentlemen-adventurers of life get scarred in those wild places where he lived. He saw himself a rather battered specimen well on the way to middle age.

There was confusion in his mind, however, and in his heart: a struggling complex of emotions that made it difficult to know exactly what he did feel. The dominant clue concealed itself. Feelings shifted. A single, clear determinant did not offer. He was an honest fellow. “I can’t quite make it out,” he said. “What is it I really feel? And why?” His motive seemed confused. To keep the flame alight for ten long buffeting years was no small achievement; better men had succumbed in half the time. Yet something in him still held fast to the girl as with a band of steel that would not let her go entirely. Occasionally there came strong reversions, when he ached with longing, yearning, hope; when he loved her again; remembered passionately each detail of the far-off courtship days in the forbidden rectory garden beyond the small, white garden gate. Or was it merely the image and the memory he loved “again”? He hardly knew himself. He could not tell. That “again” puzzled him. It was the wrong word surely. … He still wrote the promised letter, however; it was so easy; those short sentences could not betray the dead or dying fires. One day, besides, he would return and claim her. He meant to keep his word.

And he had kept it. Here he was, this calm September afternoon, within three miles of the village where he first had kissed her, where the marvel of first love had come to both; three short miles between him and the little white garden gate of which at this very moment she was intently thinking, and behind which some fifty minutes later she would be standing, waiting for him. …

He had purposely left the train at an earlier station;[5] he would walk over in the dusk, climb the familiar steps, knock at the white gate in the wall as of old, utter the promised words, “I have come back to find you,” enter, and—keep his word. He had written from Mexico a week before he sailed; he had made careful, even accurate calculations: “In the dusk, on the sixteenth of September, I shall come and knock,” he added to the usual sentences. The knowledge of his coming, therefore, had been in her possession seven days. Just before sailing, moreover, he had heard from her—though not in answer, naturally. She was well; she was happy; she was unmarried; she was waiting.

And now, as by some magical process of restoration—possible to deep hearts only, perhaps, though even by them quite inexplicable—the state of first love had blazed up again in him. In all its radiant beauty it lit his heart, burned unextinguished in his soul, set body and mind on fire. The years had merely veiled it. It burst upon him, captured, overwhelmed him with the suddenness of a dream. He stepped from the train. He met it in the face. It took him prisoner. The familiar trees and hedges, the unchanged countryside, the “field-smells known in infancy,” all these, with something subtly added to them, rolled back the passion of his youth upon him in a flood. No longer was he bound upon what he deemed, perhaps, an act of honourable duty; it was love that drove him, as it drove him fifteen years before. And it drove him with the accumulated passion of desire long forcibly repressed; almost as if, out of some fancied notion of fairness to the girl, he had deliberately, yet still unconsciously, said “No” to it; that she had not faded, but that he had decided, “I must forget her.” That sentence: “Why doesn’t she marry—some one else?” had not betrayed change in himself. It surprised another motive: “It’s not fair to—her!”

His mind worked with a curious rapidity, but worked within one circle only. The stress of sudden emotion[6] was extraordinary. He remembered a thousand things—yet, chief among them, those occasional reversions when he had felt he “loved her again.” Had he not, after all, deceived himself? Had she ever really “faded” at all? Had he not felt he ought to let her fade—release her that way? And the change in himself?—that sentence on the Californian fruit-farm—what did they mean? Which had been true, the fading or the love?

The confusion in his mind was hopeless, but, as a matter of fact, he did not think at all: he only felt. The momentum, besides, was irresistible, and before the shattering onset of the sweet revival he did not stop to analyse the strange result. He knew certain things, and cared to know no others: that his heart was leaping, his blood running with the heat of twenty, that joy recaptured him, that he must see, hear, touch her, hold her in his arms—and marry her. For the fifteen years had crumbled to a little thing, and at thirty-five he felt himself but twenty, rapturously, deliciously in love.

He went quickly, eagerly down the little street to the inn, still feeling only, not thinking anything. The vehement uprush of the old emotion made reflection of any kind impossible. He gave no further thought to those long years “out there,” when her name, her letters, the very image of her in his mind, had found him, if not cold, at least without keen response. All that was forgotten as though it had not been. The steadfast thing in him, this strong holding to a promise which had never wilted, ousted the recollection of fading and decay that, whatever caused them, certainly had existed. And this steadfast thing now took command. This enduring quality in his character led him. It was only towards the end of the hurried tea he first received the singular impression—vague, indeed, but undeniably persistent—the strange impression that he was being led.

Yet, though aware of this, he did not pause to argue or reflect. The emotional displacement in him, of course,[7] had been more than considerable: there had been upheaval, a change whose abruptness was even dislocating, fundamental in a sense he could not estimate—shock. Yet he took no count of anything but the one mastering desire to get to her as soon as possible, knock at the small, white garden gate, hear her answering voice, see the low wooden door swing open—take her. There was joy and glory in his heart, and a yearning sweet delight. At this very moment she was expecting him. And he—had come.

Behind these positive emotions, however, there lay concealed all the time others that were of a negative character. Consciously, he was not aware of them, but they were there; they revealed their presence in various little ways that puzzled him. He recognised them absentmindedly, as it were; did not analyse or investigate them. For, through the confusion upon his faculties, rose also a certain hint of insecurity that betrayed itself by a slight hesitancy or miscalculation in one or two unimportant actions. There was a touch of melancholy, too, a sense of something lost. It lay, perhaps, in that tinge of sadness which accompanies the twilight of an autumn day, when a gentler, mournful beauty veils a greater beauty that is past. Some trick of memory connected it with a scene of early boyhood, when, meaning to see the sunrise, he overslept, and, by a brief half-hour, was just—too late. He noted it merely, then passed on; he did not understand it; he hurried all the more, this hurry the only sign that it was noted. “I must be quick,” flashed up across his strongly positive emotions.

And, due to this hurry, possibly, were the slight miscalculations that he made. They were very trivial. He rang for sugar, though the bowl stood just before his eyes, yet when the girl came in he forgot completely what he rang for—and inquired instead about the evening trains to London. And, when the time-table was laid before him, he examined it without intelligence, then looked[8] up suddenly into the maid’s face with a question about flowers. Were there flowers to be had in the village anywhere? What kind of flowers? “Oh, a bouquet or a”—he hesitated, searching for a word that tried to present itself, yet was not the word he wanted to make use of—“or a wreath—of some sort?” he finished. He took the very word he did not want to take. In several things he did and said, this hesitancy and miscalculation betrayed themselves—such trivial things, yet significant in an elusive way that he disliked. There was sadness, insecurity somewhere in them. And he resented them, aware of their existence only because they qualified his joy. There was a whispered “No” floating somewhere in the dusk. Almost—he felt disquiet. He hurried, more and more eager to be off upon his journey—the final part of it.

Moreover, there were other signs of an odd miscalculation—dislocation, perhaps, properly speaking—in him. Though the inn was familiar from his boyhood days, kept by the same old couple, too, he volunteered no information about himself, nor asked a single question about the village he was bound for. He did not even inquire if the rector—her father—still were living. And when he left he entirely neglected the gilt-framed mirror above the mantelpiece of plush, dusty pampas-grass in waterless vases on either side. It did not matter, apparently, whether he looked well or ill, tidy or untidy. He forgot that when his cap was off the absence of thick, accustomed hair must alter him considerably, forgot also that two fingers were missing from one hand, the right hand, the hand that she would presently clasp. Nor did it occur to him that he wore glasses, which must change his expression and add to the appearance of the years he bore. None of these obvious and natural things seemed to come into his thoughts at all. He was in a hurry to be off. He did not think. But, though his mind may not have noted these slight betrayals[9] with actual sentences, his attitude, nevertheless, expressed them. This was, it seemed, the feeling in him: “What could such details matter to her now? Why, indeed, should he give to them a single thought? It was himself she loved and waited for, not separate items of his external, physical image.” As well think of the fact that she, too, must have altered—outwardly. It never once occurred to him. Such details were of To-day. … He was only impatient to come to her quickly, very quickly, instantly, if possible. He hurried.

There was a flood of boyhood’s joy in him. He paid for his tea, giving a tip that was twice the price of the meal, and set out gaily and impetuously along the winding lane. Charged to the brim with a sweet picture of a small, white garden gate, the loved face close behind it, he went forward at a headlong pace, singing “Nancy Lee” as he used to sing it fifteen years before.

With action, then, the negative sensations hid themselves, obliterated by the positive ones that took command. The former, however, merely lay concealed; they waited. Thus, perhaps, does vital emotion, overlong restrained, denied, indeed, of its blossoming altogether, take revenge. Repressed elements in his psychic life asserted themselves, selecting, as though naturally, a dramatic form.

The dusk fell rapidly, mist rose in floating strips along the meadows by the stream; the old, familiar details beckoned him forwards, then drove him from behind as he went swiftly past them. He recognised others rising through the thickening air beyond; they nodded, peered, and whispered; sometimes they almost sang. And each added to his inner happiness; each brought its sweet and precious contribution, and built it into the reconstructed picture of the earlier, long-forgotten rapture. It was an enticing and enchanted journey that he made, something impossibly blissful in it, something, too, that seemed curiously—inevitable.

[10] For the scenery had not altered all these years, the details of the country were unchanged, everything he saw was rich with dear and precious association, increasing the momentum of the tide that carried him along. Yonder was the stile over whose broken step he had helped her yesterday, and there the slippery plank across the stream where she looked above her shoulder to ask for his support; he saw the very bramble bushes where she scratched her hand, a-blackberrying, the day before … and, finally, the weather-stained signpost, “To the Rectory.” It pointed to the path through the dangerous field where Farmer Sparrow’s bull provided such a sweet excuse for holding, leading—protecting her. From the entire landscape rose a steam of recent memory, each incident alive, each little detail brimmed with its cargo of fond association.

He read the rough black lettering on the crooked arm—it was rather faded, but he knew it too well to miss a single letter—and hurried forward along the muddy track; he looked about him for a sign of Farmer Sparrow’s bull; he even felt in the misty air for the little hand that he might take and lead her into safety. The thought of her drew him on with such irresistible anticipation that it seemed as if the cumulative drive of vanished and unsated years evoked the tangible phantom almost. He actually felt it, soft and warm and clinging in his own, that was no longer incomplete and mutilated.

Yet it was not he who led and guided now, but, more and more, he who was being led. The hint had first betrayed its presence at the inn; it now openly declared itself. It had crossed the frontier into a positive sensation. Its growth, swiftly increasing all this time, had accomplished itself; he had ignored, somehow, both its genesis and quick development; the result he plainly recognised. She was expecting him, indeed, but it was more than expectation; there was calling in it—she summoned him. Her thought and longing reached him along[11] that old, invisible track love builds so easily between true, faithful hearts. All the forces of her being, her very voice, came towards him through the deepening autumn twilight. He had not noticed the curious physical restoration in his hand, but he was vividly aware of this more magical alteration—that she led and guided him, drawing him ever more swiftly towards the little, white garden gate where she stood at this very moment, waiting. Her sweet strength compelled him; there was this new touch of something irresistible about the familiar journey, where formerly had been delicious yielding only, shy, tentative advance. He realised it—inevitable.

His footsteps hurried, faster and ever faster; so deep was the allurement in his blood, he almost ran. He reached the narrow, winding lane, and raced along it. He knew each bend, each angle of the holly hedge, each separate incident of ditch and stone. He could have plunged blindfold down it at top speed. The familiar perfumes rushed at him—dead leaves and mossy earth and ferns and dock leaves, bringing the bewildering currents of strong emotion in him all together as in a rising wave. He saw, then, the crumbling wall, the cedars topping it with spreading branches, the chimneys of the rectory. On his right bulked the outline of the old, grey church; the twisted, ancient yews, the company of gravestones, upright and leaning, dotting the ground like listening figures. But he looked at none of these. For, on his left, he already saw the five rough steps of stone that led from the lane towards a small, white garden gate. That gate at last shone before him, rising through the misty air. He reached it.

He stopped dead a moment. His heart, it seemed, stopped too, then took to violent hammering in his brain. There was a roaring in his mind, and yet a marvellous silence—just behind it. Then the roar of emotion died away. There was utter stillness. This stillness,[12] silence, was all about him. The world seemed preternaturally quiet.

But the pause was too brief to measure. For the tide of emotion had receded only to come on again with redoubled power. He turned, leaped forward, clambered impetuously up the rough stone steps, and flung himself, breathless and exhausted, against the trivial barrier that stood between his eyes and—hers. In his wild, half violent impatience, however, he stumbled. That roaring, too, confused him. He fell forward, it seemed, for twilight had merged in darkness, and he misjudged the steps, the distances he yet knew so well. For a moment, certainly, he lay at full length upon the uneven ground against the wall; the steps had tripped him. And then he raised himself and knocked. His right hand struck upon the small, white garden gate. Upon the two lost fingers he felt the impact. “I am here,” he cried, with a deep sound in his throat as though utterance was choked and difficult. “I have come back—to find you.”

For a fraction of a second he waited, while the world stood still and waited with him. But there was no delay. Her answer came at once: “I am well. … I am happy. … I am waiting.”

And the voice was dear and marvellous as of old. Though the words were strange, reminding him of something dreamed, forgotten, lost, it seemed, he did not take special note of them. He only wondered that she did not open instantly that he might see her. Speech could follow, but sight came surely first! There was this lightning-flash of disappointment in him. Ah, she was lengthening out the marvellous moment, as often and often she had done before. It was to tease him that she made him wait. He knocked again; he pushed against the unyielding surface. For he noticed that it was unyielding; and there was a depth in the tender voice that he could not understand.

“Open!” he cried again, but louder than before.[13] “I have come back to find you!” And as he said it the mist struck cold and thick against his face.

But her answer froze his blood.

“I cannot open.”

And a sudden anguish of despair rose over him; the sound of her voice was strange; in it was faintness, distance—as well as depth. It seemed to echo. Something frantic seized him then—the panic sense.

“Open, open! Come out to me!” he tried to shout. His voice failed oddly; there was no power in it. Something appalling struck him between the eyes. “For God’s sake, open. I’m waiting here! Open, and come out to me!”

The reply was muffled by distance that already seemed increasing; he was conscious of freezing cold about him—in his heart.

“I cannot open. You must come in to me. I’m here and—waiting—always.”

He knew not exactly then what happened, for the cold grew deeper and the icy mist was in his throat. No words would come. He rose to his knees, and from his knees to his feet. He stooped. With all his force he knocked again; in a blind frenzy of despair he hammered and beat against the unyielding barrier of the small, white garden gate. He battered it till the skin of his knuckles was torn and bleeding—the first two fingers of a hand already mutilated. He remembers the torn and broken skin, for he noticed in the gloom that stains upon the gate bore witness to his violence; it was not till afterwards that he remembered the other fact—that the hand had already suffered mutilation, long, long years ago. The power of sound was feebly in him; he called aloud; there was no answer. He tried to scream, but the scream was muffled in his throat before it issued properly; it was a nightmare scream. As a last resort he flung himself bodily upon the unyielding gate,[14] with such precipitate violence, moreover, that his face struck against its surface.

From the friction, then, along the whole length of his cheek he knew that the surface was not smooth. Cold and rough that surface was; but also—it was not of wood. Moreover, there was writing on it he had not seen before. How he deciphered it in the gloom, he never knew. The lettering was deeply cut. Perhaps he traced it with his fingers; his right hand certainly lay stretched upon it. He made out a name, a date, a broken verse from the Bible, and the words, “died peacefully.” The lettering was sharply cut with edges that were new. For the date was of a week ago; the broken verse ran, “When the shadows flee away …” and the small, white garden gate was unyielding because it was of—stone.


At the inn he found himself staring at a table from which the tea things had not been cleared away. There was a railway time-table in his hands, and his head was bent forwards over it, trying to decipher the lettering in the growing twilight. Beside him, still fingering a shilling, stood the serving-girl; her other hand held a brown tray with a running dog painted upon its dented surface. It swung to and fro a little as she spoke, evidently continuing a conversation her customer had begun. For she was giving information—in the colourless, disinterested voice such persons use:

“We all went to the funeral, sir, all the country people went. The grave was her father’s—the family grave. …” Then, seeing that her customer was too absorbed in the time-table to listen further, she said no more but began to pile the tea things on to the tray with noisy clatter.

Ten minutes later, in the road, he stood hesitating. The signal at the station just opposite was already down. The autumn mist was rising. He looked along the[15] winding road that melted away into the distance, then slowly turned and reached the platform just as the London train came in. He felt very old—too old to walk six miles. …


Algernon Henry Blackwood, (14 March 1869 – 10 December 1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre. He was also a journalist and a broadcasting narrator. – Wikipedia

Born Algernon Henry Blackwood
14 March 1869
Shooter’s Hill, Kent, England
Died 10 December 1951 (aged 82)
Bishopsteighton, Kent, England

Short Story Saturday – Egyptian Sorcery by Algernon Blackwood

51XXghNbSWL._SR600,315_PIWhiteStrip,BottomLeft,0,35_PIStarRatingFIVE,BottomLeft,360,-6_SR600,315_SCLZZZZZZZ_

This week’s story is Algernon Blackwood’s Egyptian Sorcery. I hope you enjoy it.

EGYPTIAN SORCERY

1

Sanfield paused as he was about to leave the Underground station at Victoria, and cursed the weather. When he left the City it was fine; now it was pouring with rain, and he had neither overcoat nor umbrella. Not a taxi was discoverable in the dripping gloom. He would get soaked before he reached his rooms in Sloane Street.

He stood for some minutes, thinking how vile London was in February, and how depressing life was in general. He stood also, in that moment, though he knew it not, upon the edge of a singular adventure. Looking back upon it in later years, he often remembered this particularly wretched moment of a pouring wet February evening, when everything seemed wrong, and Fate had loaded the dice against him, even in the matter of weather and umbrellas.

Fate, however, without betraying her presence, was watching him through the rain and murk; and Fate, that night, had strange, mysterious eyes. Fantastic cards lay up her sleeve. The rain, his weariness and depression, his physical fatigue especially, seemed the conditions she required before she played these curious cards. Something new and wonderful fluttered close. Romance flashed by him across the driving rain and touched his cheek. He was too exasperated to be aware of it.

Things had gone badly that day at the office, where he was junior partner in a small firm of engineers. Threatened trouble at the works had come to a head. A strike seemed imminent. To add to his annoyance, a new client, whose custom was of supreme importance, had just complained bitterly of the delay in the delivery of his machinery. The senior partners had left the matter in Sanfield’s hands; he had not succeeded. The angry customer swore he would hold the firm to its contract. They could deliver or pay up—whichever suited them. The junior partner had made a mess of things.

The final words on the telephone still rang in his ears as he stood sheltering under the arcade, watching the downpour, and wondering whether he should make a dash for it or wait on the chance of its clearing up—when a further blow was dealt him as the rain-soaked poster of an evening paper caught his eye: “Riots in Egypt. Heavy Fall in Egyptian Securities,” he read with blank dismay. Buying a paper he turned feverishly to the City article—to find his worst fears confirmed. Delta Lands, in which nearly all his small capital was invested, had declined a quarter on the news, and would evidently decline further still. The riots were going on in the towns nearest to their property. Banks had been looted, crops destroyed; the trouble was deep-seated.

So grave was the situation that mere weather seemed suddenly of no account at all. He walked home doggedly in the drenching rain, paying less attention to it than if it had been Scotch mist. The water streamed from his hat, dripped down his back and neck, splashed him with mud and grime from head to foot. He was soaked to the skin. He hardly noticed it. His capital had depreciated by half, at least, and possibly was altogether lost; his position at the office was insecure. How could mere weather matter?

Sitting, eventually, before his fire in dry clothes, after an apology for a dinner he had no heart to eat, he reviewed the situation. He faced a possible total loss of his private capital. Next, the position of his firm caused him grave uneasiness, since, apart from his own mishandling of the new customer, the threatened strike might ruin it completely; a long strain on its limited finances was out of the question. George Sanfield certainly saw things at their worst. He was now thirty-five. A fresh start—the mere idea of it made him shudder—occurred as a possibility in the near future. Vitality, indeed, was at a low ebb, it seemed. Mental depression, great physical fatigue, weariness of life in general made his spirits droop alarmingly, so that almost he felt tired of living. His tie with existence, at any rate, just then was dangerously weak.

Thought turned next to the man on whose advice he had staked his all in Delta Lands. Morris had important Egyptian interests in various big companies and enterprises along the Nile. He had first come to the firm with a letter of introduction upon some business matter, which the junior partner had handled so successfully that acquaintance thus formed had ripened into a more personal tie. The two men had much in common; their temperaments were suited; understanding grew between them; they felt at home and comfortable with one another. They became friends; they felt a mutual confidence. When Morris paid his rare visits to England, they spent much time together; and it was on one of these occasions that the matter of the Egyptian shares was mentioned, Morris urgently advising their purchase.

Sanfield explained his own position clearly enough, but his friend was so confident and optimistic that the purchase eventually had been made. There had been, moreover, Sanfield now remembered, the flavour of a peculiarly intimate and personal kind about the deal. He had remarked it, with a touch of surprise, at the moment, though really it seemed natural enough. Morris was very earnest, holding his friend’s interest at heart; he was affectionate almost.

“I’d like to do you this good turn, old man,” he said. “I have the strong feeling, somehow, that I owe you this, though heaven alone knows why!” After a pause he added, half shyly: “It may be one of those old memories we hear about nowadays cropping up out of some previous life together.” Before the other could reply, he went on to explain that only three men were in the parent syndicate, the shares being unobtainable. “I’ll set some of my own aside for you—four thousand or so, if you like.”

They laughed together; Sanfield thanked him warmly; the deal was carried out. But the recipient of the favour had wondered a little at the sudden increase of intimacy even while he liked it and responded.

Had he been a fool, he now asked himself, to swallow the advice, putting all his eggs into a single basket? He knew very little about Morris after all…. Yet, while reflection showed him that the advice was honest, and the present riots no fault of the adviser’s, he found his thoughts turning in a steady stream towards the man. The affairs of the firm took second place. It was Morris, with his deep-set eyes, his curious ways, his dark skin burnt brick-red by a fierce Eastern sun; it was Morris, looking almost like an Egyptian, who stood before him as he sat thinking gloomily over his dying fire.

He longed to talk with him, to ask him questions, to seek advice. He saw him very vividly against the screen of thought; Morris stood beside him now, gazing out across the limitless expanse of tawny sand. He had in his eyes the “distance” that sailors share with men whose life has been spent amid great trackless wastes. Morris, moreover, now he came to think of it, seemed always a little out of place in England. He had few relatives and, apparently, no friends; he was always intensely pleased when the time came to return to his beloved Nile. He had once mentioned casually a sister who kept house for him when duty detained him in Cairo, but, even here, he was something of an Oriental, rarely speaking of his women folk. Egypt, however, plainly drew him like a magnet. Resistance involved disturbance in his being, even ill-health. Egypt was “home” to him, and his friend, though he had never been there, felt himself its potent spell.

Another curious trait Sanfield remembered, too—his friend’s childish superstition; his belief, or half-belief, in magic and the supernatural. Sanfield, amused, had ascribed it to the long sojourn in a land where anything unusual is at once ascribed to spiritual agencies. Morris owed his entire fortune, if his tale could be believed, to the magical apparition of an unearthly kind in some lonely wadi among the Bedouins. A sand-diviner had influenced another successful speculation…. He was a picturesque figure, whichever way one took him: yet a successful business man into the bargain.

These reflections and memories, on the other hand, brought small comfort to the man who had tempted Fate by following his advice. It was only a little strange how Morris now dominated his thoughts, directing them towards himself. Morris was in Egypt at the moment.

He went to bed at length, filled with uneasy misgivings, but for a long time he could not sleep. He tossed restlessly, his mind still running on the subject of his long reflections. He ached with tiredness. He dropped off at last. Then came a nightmare dream, in which the firm’s works were sold for nearly nothing to an old Arab sheikh who wished to pay for them—in goats. He woke up in a cold perspiration. He had uneasy thoughts. His fancy was travelling. He could not rest.

To distract his mind, he turned on the light and tried to read, and, eventually, towards morning, fell into a sleep of sheer exhaustion. And his final thought—he knew not exactly why—was a sentence Morris had made use of long ago: “I feel I owe you a good turn; I’d like to do something for you….”

This was the memory in his mind as he slipped off into unconsciousness.

But what happens when the mind is unconscious and the tired body lies submerged in deep sleep, no man, they say, can really tell.

2

The next thing he knew he was walking along a sun-baked street in some foreign town that was familiar, although, at first, its name escaped him. Colour, softness, and warmth pervaded it; there was sparkle and lightness in the exhilarating air; it was an Eastern town.

Though early morning, a number of people were already stirring; strings of camels passed him, loaded with clover, bales of merchandise, and firewood. Gracefully-draped women went by silently, carrying water jars of burnt clay upon their heads. Rude wooden shutters were being taken down in the bazaars; the smoke of cooking-fires rose in the blue spirals through the quiet air. He felt strangely at home and happy. The light, the radiance stirred him. He passed a mosque from which the worshippers came pouring in a stream of colour.

Yet, though an Eastern town, it was not wholly Oriental, for he saw that many of the buildings were of semi-European design, and that the natives sometimes wore European dress, except for the fez upon the head. Among them were Europeans, too. Staring into the faces of the passers-by he found, to his vexation, that he could not focus sight as usual, and that the nearer he approached, the less clearly he discerned the features. The faces, upon close attention, at once grew shadowy, merged into each other, or, in some odd fashion, melted into the dazzling sunshine that was their background. All his attempts in this direction failed; impatience seized him; of surprise, however, he was not conscious. Yet this mingled vagueness and intensity seemed perfectly natural.

Filled with a stirring curiosity, he made a strong effort to concentrate his attention, only to discover that this vagueness, this difficulty of focus, lay in his own being, too. He wandered on, unaware exactly where he was going, yet not much perturbed, since there was an objective in view, he knew, and this objective must eventually be reached. Its nature, however, for the moment entirely eluded him.

The sense of familiarity, meanwhile, increased; he had been in this town before, although not quite within recoverable memory. It seemed, perhaps, the general atmosphere, rather than the actual streets, he knew; a certain perfume in the air, a tang of indefinable sweetness, a vitality in the radiant sunshine. The dark faces that he could not focus, he yet knew; the flowing garments of blue and red and yellow, the softly-slippered feet, the slouching camels, the burning human eyes that faded ere he fully caught them—the entire picture in this blazing sunlight lay half-hidden, half-revealed. And an extraordinary sense of happiness and well-being flooded him as he walked; he felt at home; comfort and bliss stole over him. Almost he knew his way about. This was a place he loved and knew.

The complete silence, moreover, did not strike him as peculiar until, suddenly, it was broken in a startling fashion. He heard his own name spoken. It sounded close beside his ear.

“George Sanfield!” The voice was familiar. Morris called him. He realized then the truth. He was, of course, in Cairo.

Yet, instead of turning to discover the speaker at his side, he hurried forward, as though he knew that the voice had come through distance. His consciousness cleared and lightened; he felt more alive; his eyes now focused the passers-by without difficulty. He was there to find Morris, and Morris was directing him. All was explained and natural again. He hastened. But, even while he hastened, he knew that his personal desire to speak with his friend about Egyptian shares and Delta Lands was not his single object. Behind it, further in among as yet unstirring shadows, lay another deeper purpose. Yet he did not trouble about it, nor make a conscious effort at discovery. Morris was doing him that “good turn I feel I owe you.” This conviction filled him overwhelmingly. The question of how and why did not once occur to him. A strange, great happiness rose in him.

Upon the outskirts of the town now, he found himself approaching a large building in the European style, with wide verandas and a cultivated garden filled with palm trees. A well-kept drive of yellow sand led to its chief entrance, and the man in khaki drill and riding-breeches walking along this drive, not ten yards in front of him, was—Morris. He overtook him, but his cry of welcome recognition was not answered. Morris, walking with bowed head and stooping shoulders, seemed intensely preoccupied; he had not heard the call.

“Here I am, old fellow!” exclaimed his friend, holding out a hand. “I’ve come, you see…!” then paused aghast before the altered face. Morris paid no attention. He walked straight on as though he had not heard. It was the distraught and anguished expression on the drawn and haggard features that impressed the other most. The silence he took without surprise.

It was the pain and suffering in his friend that occupied him. The dark rims beneath heavy eyes, the evidence of sleepless nights, of long anxiety and ceaseless dread, afflicted him with their too-plain story. The man was overwhelmed with some great sorrow. Sanfield forgot his personal trouble; this larger, deeper grief usurped its place entirely.

“Morris! Morris!” he cried yet more eagerly than before. “I’ve come, you see. Tell me what’s the matter. I believe—that I can—help you…!”

The other turned, looking past him through the air. He made no answer. The eyes went through him. He walked straight on, and Sanfield walked at his side in silence. Through the large door they passed together, Morris paying as little attention to him as though he were not there, and in the small chamber they now entered, evidently a waiting-room, an Egyptian servant approached, uttered some inaudible words, and then withdrew, leaving them alone together.

It seemed that time leaped forward, yet stood still; the passage of minutes, that is to say, was irregular, almost fanciful. Whether the interval was long or short, however, Morris spent it pacing up and down the little room, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his mind oblivious of all else but his absorbing anxiety and grief. To his friend, who watched him by the wall with intense desire to help, he paid no attention. The latter’s spoken words went by him, entirely unnoticed; he gave no sign of seeing him; his eyes, as he paced up and down, muttering inaudibly to himself, were fixed every few seconds on an inner door. Beyond that door, Sanfield now divined, lay someone who hesitated on the narrow frontier between life and death.

It opened suddenly and a man, in overall and rubber gloves, came out, his face grave yet with faint signs of hope about it—a doctor, clearly, straight from the operating table. Morris, standing rigid in his tracks, listened to something spoken, for the lips were in movement, though no words were audible. The operation, Sanfield divined, had been successful, though danger was still present. The two men passed out, then, into the hall and climbed a wide staircase to the floor above, Sanfield following noiselessly, though so close that he could touch them. Entering a large, airy room where French windows, carefully shaded with green blinds opened on to a veranda, they approached a bed. Two nurses bent over it. The occupant was at first invisible.

Events had moved with curious rapidity. All this had happened, it seemed, in a single moment, yet with the irregular effect already mentioned which made Sanfield feel it might, equally, have lasted hours. But, as he stood behind Morris and the surgeon at the bed, the deeps in him opened suddenly, and he trembled under a shock of intense emotion that he could not understand. As with a stroke of lightning some heavenly fire set his heart aflame with yearning. The very soul in him broke loose with passionate longing that must find satisfaction. It came to him in a single instant with the certain knowledge of an unconquerable conviction. Hidden, yet ever waiting, among the broken centuries, there now leaped upon him this flash of memory—the memory of some sweet and ancient love Time might veil yet could not kill.

He ran forward, past the surgeon and the nurses, past Morris who bent above the bed with a face ghastly from anxiety. He gazed down upon the fair girl lying there, her unbound hair streaming over the pillow. He saw, and he remembered. And an uncontrollable cry of recognition left his lips….

The irregularity of the passing minutes became so marked then, that he might well have passed outside their measure altogether, beyond what men call Time; duration, interval, both escaped. Alone and free with his eternal love, he was safe from all confinement, free, it seemed, either of time or space. His friend, however, was vaguely with him during the amazing instant. He felt acutely aware of the need each had, respectively, for the other, born of a heritage the Past had hidden over-long. Each, it was clear, could do the other a good turn…. Sanfield, though unable to describe or disentangle later, knew, while it lasted, this joy of full, delicious understanding….

The strange, swift instant of recognition passed and disappeared. The cry, Sanfield realized, on coming back to the Present, had been soundless and inaudible as before. No one observed him; no one stirred. The girl, on that bed beside the opened windows, lay evidently dying. Her breath came in gasps, her chest heaved convulsively, each attempt at recovery was slower and more painful than the one before. She was unconscious. Sometimes her breathing seemed to stop. It grew weaker, as the pulse grew fainter. And Sanfield, transfixed as with paralysis, stood watching, waiting, an intolerable yearning in his heart to help. It seemed to him that he waited with a purpose.

This purpose suddenly became clear. He knew why he waited. There was help to be given. He was the one to give it.

The girl’s vitality and ebbing nerves, her entire physical organism now fading so quickly towards that final extinction which meant death—could these but be stimulated by a new tide of life, the danger-point now fast approaching might be passed, and recovery must follow. This impetus, he knew suddenly, he could supply. How, he could not tell. It flashed upon him from beyond the stars, as from ancient store of long-forgotten, long-neglected knowledge. It was enough that he felt confident and sure. His soul burned within him; the strength of an ancient and unconquerable love rose through his being. He would try.

The doctor, he saw, was in the act of giving his last aid in the form of a hypodermic injection, Morris and the nurses looking on. Sanfield observed the sharp quick rally, only too faint, too slight; he saw the collapse that followed. The doctor, shrugging his shoulders, turned with a look that could not express itself in words, and Morris, burying his face in his hands, knelt by the bed, shaken with convulsive sobbing. It was the end.

In which moment, precisely, the strange paralysis that had bound Sanfield momentarily, was lifted from his being, and an impelling force, obeying his immense desire, invaded him. He knew how to act. His will, taught long ago, yet long-forgotten, was set free.

“You have come back to me at last,” he cried in his anguish and his power, though the voice was, as ever, inaudible and soundless, “I shall not let you go!…

Drawn forward nearer and nearer to the bed, he leaned down, as if to kiss the pale lips and streaming hair. But his knowledge operated better than he knew. In the tremendous grip of that power which spins the stars and suns, while drawing souls into manifestation upon a dozen planets, he raced, he dived, he plunged, helpless, yet driven by the creative stress of love and sacrifice towards some eternal purpose. Caught in what seemed a vortex of amazing force, he sank away, as a straw is caught and sunk within the suction of a mighty whirlpool. His memory of Morris, of the doctor, of the girl herself, passed utterly. His entire personality became merged, lost, obliterated. He was aware of nothing; not even aware of nothingness. He lost consciousness….

3

The reappearance was as sudden as the obliteration. He emerged. There had been interval, duration, time. He was not aware of them. A spasm of blinding pain shot through him. He opened his eyes. His whole body was a single devouring pain. He felt cramped, confined, uncomfortable. He must escape. He thrashed about. Someone seized his arm and held it. With a snarl he easily wrenched it free.

He was in bed. How had he come to this? An accident? He saw the faces of nurse and doctor bending over him, eager, amazed, surprised, a trifle frightened. Vague memories floated to him. Who was he? Where had he come from? And where was … where was … someone … who was dearer to him than life itself? He looked about him: the room, the faces, the French windows, the veranda, all seemed only half familiar. He looked, he searched for … someone … but in vain….

A spasm of violent pain burned through his body like a fire, and he shut his eyes. He groaned. A voice sounded just above him: “Take this, dear. Try and swallow a little. It will relieve you. Your brother will be back in a moment. You are much better already.”

He looked up at the nurse; he drank what she gave him.

“My brother!” he murmured. “I don’t understand. I have no brother.” Thirst came over him; he drained the glass. The nurse, wearing a startled look, moved away. He watched her go. He pointed at her with his hand, meaning to say something that he instantly forgot—as he saw his own bare arm. Its dreadful thinness shocked him. He must have been ill for months. The arm, wasted almost to nothing, showed the bone. He sank back exhausted, the sleeping draught began to take effect. The nurse returned quietly to a chair beside the bed, from which she watched him without ceasing as the long minutes passed….

He found it difficult to collect his thoughts, to keep them in his mind when caught. There floated before him a series of odd scenes like coloured pictures in an endless flow. He was unable to catch them. Morris was with him always. They were doing quite absurd, impossible things. They rode together across the desert in the dawn, they wandered through old massive temples, they saw the sun set behind mud villages mid wavering palms, they drifted down a river in a sailing boat of quaint design. It had an enormous single sail. Together they visited tombs cut in the solid rock, hot airless corridors, and huge, dim, vaulted chambers underground. There was an icy wind by night, fierce burning sun by day. They watched vast troops of stars pass down a stupendous sky…. They knew delight and tasted wonder. Strange memories touched them….

“Nurse!” he called aloud, returning to himself again, and remembering that he must speak with his friend about something—he failed to recall exactly what. “Please ask Mr. Morris to come to me.”

“At once, dear. He’s only in the next room waiting for you to wake.” She went out quickly, and he heard her voice in the passage. It sank to a whisper as she came back with Morris, yet every syllable reached him distinctly:

“… and pay no attention if she wanders a little; just ignore it. She’s turned the corner, thank God, and that’s the chief thing.” Each word he heard with wonder and perplexity, with increasing irritability too.

“I’m a hell of a wreck,” he said, as Morris came, beaming, to the bedside. “Have I been ill long? It’s frightfully decent of you to come, old man.”

But Morris, staggered at this greeting, stopped abruptly, half turning to the nurse for guidance. He seemed unable to find words. Sanfield was extremely annoyed; he showed his feeling. “I’m not balmy, you old ass!” he shouted. “I’m all right again, though very weak. But I wanted to ask you—oh, I remember now—I wanted to ask you about my—er—Deltas.”

“My poor dear Maggie,” stammered Morris, fumbling with his voice. “Don’t worry about your few shares, darling. Deltas are all right—it’s you we——”

“Why, the devil, do you call me Maggie?” snapped the other viciously. “And ‘darling’!” He felt furious, exasperated. “Have you gone balmy, or have I? What in the world are you two up to?” His fury tired him. He lay back upon his pillows, fuming. Morris took a chair beside the bed; he put a hand gently on his wasted arm.

“My darling girl,” he said, in what was intended to be a soothing voice, though it stirred the sick man again to fury beyond expression, “you must really keep quiet for a bit. You’ve had a very severe operation”—his voice shook a little—“but, thank God, you’ve pulled through and are now on the way to recovery. You are my sister Maggie. It will all come back to you when you’re rested——”

“Maggie, indeed!” interrupted the other, trying to sit up again, but too weak to compass it. “Your sister! You bally idiot! Don’t you know me? I wish to God the nurse wouldn’t ‘dear’ me in that senseless way. And you, with your atrocious ‘darling,’ I’m not your precious sister Maggie. I’m—I’m George San——”

But even as he said it, there passed over him some dim lost fragment of a wild, delicious memory he could not seize. Intense pleasure lay in it, could he but recover it. He knew a sweet, forgotten joy. His broken, troubled mind lay searching frantically but without success. It dazzled him. It shook him with an indescribable emotion—of joy, of wonder, of deep sweet confusion. A rapt happiness rose in him, yet pain, like a black awful shutter, closed in upon the happiness at once. He remembered a girl. But he remembered, too, that he had seen her die. Who was she? Had he lost her … again…!

“My dear fellow,” he faltered in a weaker voice to Morris, “my brain’s in a whirl. I’m sorry. I suppose I’ve had some blasted concussion—haven’t I?”

But the man beside his bed, he saw, was startled. An extraordinary look came into his face, though he tried to hide it with a smile.

“My shares!” cried Sanfield, with a half scream. “Four thousand of them!”

Whereupon Morris blanched. “George Sanfield!” he muttered, half to himself, half to the nurse who hurried up. “That voice! The very number too!” He looked white and terrified, as if he had seen a ghost. A whispered colloquy ensued between him and the nurse. It was inaudible.

“Now, dearest Maggie,” he said at length, making evidently a tremendous effort, “do try and lie quiet for a bit. Don’t bother about George Sanfield, my London friend. His shares are quite safe. You’ve heard me speak of him. It’s all right, my darling, quite all right. Oh, believe me! I’m your brother.”

“Maggie…!” whispered the man to himself upon the bed, whereupon Morris stooped, and, to his intense horror, kissed him on the cheek. But his horror seemed merged at once in another personality that surged through and over his entire being, drowning memory and recognition hopelessly. “Darling,” he murmured. He realized that he was mad, of course. It seemed he fainted….

The momentary unconsciousness soon passed, at any rate. He opened his eyes again. He saw a palm tree out of the window. He knew positively he was not mad, whatever else he might be. Dead perhaps? He felt the sheets, the mattress, the skin upon his face. No, he was alive all right. The dull pains where the tight bandages oppressed him were also real. He was among substantial, earthly things. The nurse, he noticed, regarded him anxiously. She was a pleasant-looking young woman. He smiled; and, with an expression of affectionate, even tender pleasure, she smiled back at him.

“You feel better now, a little stronger,” she said softly. “You’ve had a sleep, Miss Margaret.” She said “Miss Margaret” with a conscious effort. It was better, perhaps, than “dear”; but his anger rose at once. He was too tired, however, to express his feelings. There stole over him, besides, the afflicting consciousness of an alien personality that was familiar, and yet not his. It strove to dominate him. Only by a great effort could he continue to think his own thoughts. This other being kept trying to intrude, to oust him, to take full possession. It resented his presence with a kind of violence.

He sighed. So strong was the feeling of another personality trying to foist itself upon his own, upon his mind, his body, even upon his very face, that he turned instinctively to the nurse, though unaware exactly what he meant to ask her for.

“My hand-glass, please,” he heard himself saying—with horror. The phrase was not his own. Glass or mirror were the words he would have used.

A moment later he was staring with acute and ghastly terror at a reflection that was not his own. It was the face of the dead girl he saw within the silver-handled, woman’s hand-glass he held up.

*****

The dream with its amazing, vivid detail haunted him for days, even coming between him and his work. It seemed far more real, more vivid than the commonplace events of life that followed. The occurrences of the day were pale compared to its overpowering intensity. And a cable, received the very next afternoon, increased this sense of actual truth—of something that had really happened.

“Hold shares writing Morris.”

Its brevity added a convincing touch. He was aware of Egypt even in Throgmorton Street. Yet it was the face of the dead, or dying, girl that chiefly haunted him. She remained in his thoughts, alive and sweet and exquisite. Without her he felt incomplete, his life a failure. He thought of nothing else.

The affairs at the office, meanwhile, went well; unexpected success attended them; there was no strike; the angry customer was pacified. And when the promised letter came from Morris, Sanfield’s hands trembled so violently that he could hardly tear it open. Nor could he read it calmly. The assurance about his precious shares scarcely interested him. It was the final paragraph that set his heart beating against his ribs as though a hammer lay inside him:

“… I’ve had great trouble and anxiety, though, thank God, the danger is over now. I forget if I ever mentioned my sister, Margaret, to you. She keeps house for me in Cairo, when I’m there. She is my only tie in life. Well, a severe operation she had to undergo, all but finished her. To tell you the truth, she very nearly died, for the doctor gave her up. You’ll smile when I tell you that odd things happened—at the very last moment. I can’t explain it, nor can the doctor. It rather terrified me. But at the very moment when we thought her gone, something revived in her. She became full of unexpected life and vigor. She was even violent—whereas, a moment before, she had not the strength to speak, much less to move. It was rather wonderful, but it was terrible too.

“You don’t believe in these things, I know, but I must tell you, because, when she recovered consciousness, she began to babble about yourself, using your name, though she has rarely, if ever, heard it, and even speaking—you won’t believe this, of course!—of your shares in Deltas, giving the exact number that you hold. When you write, please tell me if you were very anxious about these? Also, whether your thoughts were directed particularly to me? I thought a good deal about you, knowing you might be uneasy, but my mind was pretty full, as you will understand, of her operation at the time. The climax, when all this happened, was about 11 a. m. on February 13th.

“Don’t fail to tell me this, as I’m particularly interested in what you may have to say.”

“And, now, I want to ask a great favor of you. The doctor forbids Margaret to stay here during the hot weather, so I’m sending her home to some cousins in Yorkshire, as soon as she is fit to travel. It would be most awfully kind—I know how women bore you—if you could manage to meet the boat and help her on her way through London. I’ll let you know dates and particulars later, when I hear that you will do this for me….”

Sanfield hardly read the remainder of the letter, which dealt with shares and business matters. But a month later he stood on the dock-pier at Tilbury, watching the approach of the tender from the Egyptian Mail.

He saw it make fast; he saw the stream of passengers pour down the gangway; and he saw among them the tall, fair woman of his dream. With a beating heart he went to meet her….


 

Short Story Saturday: The Olive by Algernon Blackwood

THE OLIVE

By ALGERNON BLACKWOOD (1869 – 1951)

1922

He laughed involuntarily as the olive rolled towards his chair across the shiny parquet floor of the hotel dining-room.

His table in the cavernous salle à manger was apart: he sat alone, a solitary guest; the table from which the olive fell and rolled towards him was some distance away. The angle, however, made him an unlikely objective. Yet the lob-sided, juicy thing, after hesitating once or twice en route as it plopped along, came to rest finally against his feet.

It settled with an inviting, almost an aggressive air. And he stooped and picked it up, putting it rather self-consciously, because of the girl from whose table it had come, on the white tablecloth beside his plate.

Then, looking up, he caught her eye, and saw that she too was laughing, though not a bit self-consciously. As she helped herself to the hors d’oeuvres a false move had sent it flying. She watched him pick the olive up and set it beside his plate. Her eyes then suddenly looked away again—at her mother—questioningly.

The incident was closed. But the little oblong, succulent olive lay beside his plate, so that his fingers played with it. He fingered it automatically from time to time until his lonely meal was finished.

When no one was looking he slipped it into his pocket, as though, having taken the trouble to pick it up, this was the very least he could do with it. Heaven alone knows why, but he then took it upstairs with him, setting it on the marble mantelpiece among his field glasses, tobacco tins, ink-bottles, pipes and candlestick. At any rate, he kept it—the moist, shiny, lob-sided, juicy little oblong olive. The hotel lounge wearied him; he came to his room after dinner to smoke at his ease, his coat off and his feet on a chair; to read another chapter of Freud, to write a letter or two he didn’t in the least want to write, and then go to bed at ten o’clock. But this evening the olive kept rolling between him and the thing he read; it rolled between the paragraphs, between the lines; the olive was more vital than the interest of these eternal “complexes” and “suppressed desires.”

The truth was that he kept seeing the eyes of the laughing girl beyond the bouncing olive. She had smiled at him in such a natural, spontaneous, friendly way before her mother’s glance had checked her—a smile, he felt, that might lead to acquaintance on the morrow.

He wondered! A thrill of possible adventure ran through him.

She was a merry-looking sort of girl, with a happy, half-roguish face that seemed on the lookout for somebody to play with. Her mother, like most of the people in the big hotel, was an invalid; the girl, a dutiful and patient daughter. They had arrived that very day apparently. A laugh is a revealing thing, he thought as he fell asleep to dream of a lob-sided olive rolling consciously towards him, and of a girl’s eyes that watched its awkward movements, then looked up into his own and laughed. In his dream the olive had been deliberately and cleverly dispatched upon its uncertain journey. It was a message.

He did not know, of course, that the mother, chiding her daughter’s awkwardness, had muttered:

“There you are again, child! True to your name, you never see an olive without doing something queer and odd with it!”

A youngish man, whose knowledge of chemistry, including invisible inks and such-like mysteries, had proved so valuable to the Censor’s Department that for five years he had overworked without a holiday, the Italian Riviera had attracted him, and he had come out for a two months’ rest. It was his first visit. Sun, mimosa, blue seas and brilliant skies had tempted him; exchange made a pound worth forty, fifty, sixty and seventy shillings. He found the place lovely, but somewhat untenanted.

Having chosen at random, he had come to a spot where the companionship he hoped to find did not exist. The place languished after the war, slow to recover; the colony of resident English was scattered still; travellers preferred the coast of France with Mentone and Monte Carlo to enliven them. The country, moreover, was distracted by strikes. The electric light failed one week, letters the next, and as soon as the electricians and postal-workers resumed, the railways stopped running. Few visitors came, and the few who came soon left.

He stayed on, however, caught by the sunshine and the good exchange, also without the physical energy to discover a better, livelier place. He went for walks among the olive groves, he sat beside the sea and palms, he visited shops and bought things he did not want because the exchange made them seem cheap, he paid immense “extras” in his weekly bill, then chuckled as he reduced them to shillings and found that a few pence covered them; he lay with a book for hours among the olive groves.

The olive groves! His daily life could not escape the olive groves; to olive groves, sooner or later, his walks, his expeditions, his meanderings by the sea, his shopping—all led him to these ubiquitous olive groves.

If he bought a picture postcard to send home, there was sure to be an olive grove in one corner of it. The whole place was smothered with olive groves, the people owed their incomes and existence to these irrepressible trees. The villages among the hills swam roof-deep in them. They swarmed even in the hotel gardens.

The guide books praised them as persistently as the residents brought them, sooner or later, into every conversation. They grew lyrical over them:

“And how do you like our olive trees? Ah, you think them pretty. At first, most people are disappointed. They grow on one.”

“They do,” he agreed.

“I’m glad you appreciate them. I find them the embodiment of grace. And when the wind lifts the under-leaves across a whole mountain slope—why, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? One realises the meaning of ‘olive-green’.”

“One does,” he sighed. “But all the same I should like to get one to eat—an olive, I mean.”

“Ah, to eat, yes. That’s not so easy. You see, the crop is—”

“Exactly,” he interrupted impatiently, weary of the habitual and evasive explanations. “But I should like to taste the fruit. I should like to enjoy one.”

For, after a stay of six weeks, he had never once seen an olive on the table, in the shops, nor even on the street barrows at the market place. He had never tasted one. No one sold olives, though olive trees were a drug in the place; no one bought them, no one asked for them; it seemed that no one wanted them. The trees, when he looked closely, were thick with a dark little berry that seemed more like a sour sloe than the succulent, delicious spicy fruit associated with its name.

Men climbed the trunks, everywhere shaking the laden branches and hitting them with long bamboo poles to knock the fruit off, while women and children, squatting on their haunches, spent laborious hours filling baskets underneath, then loading mules and donkeys with their daily “catch.” But an olive to eat was unobtainable. He had never cared for olives, but now he craved with all his soul to feel his teeth in one.

“Ach! But it is the Spanish olive that you eat,” explained the head waiter, a German “from Basel.” “These are for oil only.” After which he disliked the olive more than ever—until that night when he saw the first eatable specimen rolling across the shiny parquet floor, propelled towards him by the careless hand of a pretty girl, who then looked up into his eyes and smiled.

He was convinced that Eve, similarly, had rolled the apple towards Adam across the emerald sward of the first garden in the world.

He slept usually like the dead. It must have been something very real that made him open his eyes and sit up in bed alertly. There was a noise against his door. He listened. The room was still quite dark. It was early morning. The noise was not repeated.

“Who’s there?” he asked in a sleepy whisper. “What is it?”

The noise came again. Some one was scratching on the door. No, it was somebody tapping.

“What do you want?” he demanded in a louder voice. “Come in,” he added, wondering sleepily whether he was presentable. Either the hotel was on fire or the porter was waking the wrong person for some sunrise expedition.

Nothing happened. Wide awake now, he turned the switch on, but no light flooded the room. The electricians, he remembered with a curse, were out on strike. He fumbled for the matches, and as he did so a voice in the corridor became distinctly audible. It was just outside his door.

“Aren’t you ready?” he heard. “You sleep for ever.”

And the voice, although never having heard it before, he could not have recognised it, belonged, he knew suddenly, to the girl who had let the olive fall. In an instant he was out of bed. He lit a candle.

“I’m coming,” he called softly, as he slipped rapidly into some clothes. “I’m sorry I’ve kept you. I shan’t be a minute.”

“Be quick then!” he heard, while the candle flame slowly grew, and he found his garments. Less than three minutes later he opened the door and, candle in hand, peered into the dark passage.

“Blow it out!” came a peremptory whisper. He obeyed, but not quick enough. A pair of red lips emerged from the shadows. There was a puff, and the candle was extinguished. “I’ve got my reputation to consider. We mustn’t be seen, of course!”

The face vanished in the darkness, but he had recognised it—the shining skin, the bright glancing eyes. The sweet breath touched his cheek. The candlestick was taken from him by a swift, deft movement. He heard it knock the wainscoting as it was set down. He went out into a pitch-black corridor, where a soft hand seized his own and led him—by a back door, it seemed—out into the open air of the hill-side immediately behind the hotel.

He saw the stars. The morning was cool and fragrant, the sharp air waked him, and the last vestiges of sleep went flying. He had been drowsy and confused, had obeyed the summons without thinking. He now realised suddenly that he was engaged in an act of madness.

The girl, dressed in some flimsy material thrown loosely about her head and body, stood a few feet away, looking, he thought, like some figure called out of dreams and slumber of a forgotten world, out of legend almost. He saw her evening shoes peep out; he divined an evening dress beneath the gauzy covering. The light wind blew it close against her figure. He thought of a nymph.

“I say—but haven’t you been to bed?” he asked stupidly. He had meant to expostulate, to apologise for his foolish rashness, to scold and say they must go back at once. Instead, this sentence came. He guessed she had been sitting up all night. He stood still a second, staring in mute admiration, his eyes full of bewildered question.

“Watching the stars,” she met his thought with a happy laugh. “Orion has touched the horizon. I came for you at once. We’ve got just four hours!” The voice, the smile, the eyes, the reference to Orion, swept him off his feet. Something in him broke loose, and flew wildly, recklessly to the stars.

“Let us be off!” he cried, “before the Bear tilts down. Already Alcyone begins to fade. I’m ready. Come!”

She laughed. The wind blew the gauze aside to show two ivory white limbs. She caught his hand again, and they scampered together up the steep hill-side towards the woods. Soon the big hotel, the villas, the white houses of the little town where natives and visitors still lay soundly sleeping, were out of sight. The farther sky came down to meet them. The stars were paling, but no sign of actual dawn was yet visible. The freshness stung their cheeks.

Slowly, the heavens grew lighter, the east turned rose, the outline of the trees defined themselves, there was a stirring of the silvery green leaves. They were among olive groves—but the spirits of the trees were dancing. Far below them, a pool of deep colour, they saw the ancient sea. They saw the tiny specks of distant fishing-boats. The sailors were singing to the dawn, and birds among the mimosa of the hanging gardens answered them.

Pausing a moment at length beneath a gaunt old tree, whose struggle to leave the clinging earth had tortured its great writhing arms and trunk, they took their breath, gazing at one another with eyes full of happy dreams.

“You understood so quickly,” said the girl, “my little message. I knew by your eyes and ears you would.” And she first tweaked his ears with two slender fingers mischievously, then laid her soft palm with a momentary light pressure on both eyes.

“You’re half-and-half, at any rate,” she added, looking him up and down for a swift instant of appraisement, “if you’re not altogether.” The laughter showed her white, even little teeth.

“You know how to play, and that’s something,” she added. Then, as if to herself, “You’ll be altogether before I’ve done with you.”

“Shall I?” he stammered, afraid to look at her.

Puzzled, some spirit of compromise still lingering in him, he knew not what she meant; he knew only that the current of life flowed increasingly through his veins, but that her eyes confused him.

“I’m longing for it,” he added. “How wonderfully you did it! They roll so awkwardly——”

“Oh, that!” She peered at him through a wisp of hair. “You’ve kept it,
I hope.”

“Rather. It’s on my mantelpiece——”

“You’re sure you haven’t eaten it?” and she made a delicious mimicry with her red lips, so that he saw the tip of a small pointed tongue.

“I shall keep it,” he swore, “as long as these arms have life in them,” and he seized her just as she was crouching to escape, and covered her with kisses.

“I knew you longed to play,” she panted, when he released her. “Still, it was sweet of you to pick it up before another got it.”

“Another!” he exclaimed.

“The gods decide. It’s a lob-sided thing, remember. It can’t roll straight.” She looked oddly mischievous, elusive.

He stared at her.

“If it had rolled elsewhere—and another had picked it up——?” he began.

“I should be with that other now!” And this time she was off and away before he could prevent her, and the sound of her silvery laughter mocked him among the olive trees beyond. He was up and after her in a second, following her slim whiteness in and out of the old-world grove, as she flitted lightly, her hair flying in the wind, her figure flashing like a ray of sunlight or the race of foaming water—till at last he caught her and drew her down upon his knees, and kissed her wildly, forgetting who and where and what he was.

“Hark!” she whispered breathlessly, one arm close about his neck. “I hear their footsteps. Listen! It is the pipe!”

“The pipe——!” he repeated, conscious of a tiny but delicious shudder.

For a sudden chill ran through him as she said it. He gazed at her. The hair fell loose about her cheeks, flushed and rosy with his hot kisses. Her eyes were bright and wild for all their softness. Her face, turned sideways to him as she listened, wore an extraordinary look that for an instant made his blood run cold. He saw the parted lips, the small white teeth, the slim neck of ivory, the young bosom panting from his tempestuous embrace. Of an unearthly loveliness and brightness she seemed to him, yet with this strange, remote expression that touched his soul with sudden terror.

Her face turned slowly.

“Who are you?” he whispered. He sprang to his feet without waiting for her answer.

He was young and agile; strong, too, with that quick response of muscle they have who keep their bodies well; but he was no match for her. Her speed and agility out-classed his own with ease. She leapt. Before he had moved one leg forward towards escape, she was clinging with soft, supple arms and limbs about him, so that he could not free himself, and as her weight bore him downwards to the ground, her lips found his own and kissed them into silence. She lay buried again in his embrace, her hair across his eyes, her heart against his heart, and he forgot his question, forgot his little fear, forgot the very world he knew….

“They come, they come,” she cried gaily. “The Dawn is here. Are you ready?”

“I’ve been ready for five thousand years,” he answered, leaping to his feet beside her.

“Altogether!” came upon a sparkling laugh that was like wind among the olive leaves.

Shaking her last gauzy covering from her, she snatched his hand, and they ran forward together to join the dancing throng now crowding up the slope beneath the trees. Their happy singing filled the sky. Decked with vine and ivy, and trailing silvery green branches, they poured in a flood of radiant life along the mountain side. Slowly they melted away into the blue distance of the breaking dawn, and, as the last figure disappeared, the sun came up slowly out of a purple sea.

They came to the place he knew—the deserted earthquake village—and a faint memory stirred in him. He did not actually recall that he had visited it already, had eaten his sandwiches with “hotel friends” beneath its crumbling walls; but there was a dim troubling sense of familiarity—nothing more. The houses still stood, but pigeons lived in them, and weasels, stoats and snakes had their uncertain homes in ancient bedrooms. Not twenty years ago the peasants thronged its narrow streets, through which the dawn now peered and cool wind breathed among dew-laden brambles.

“I know the house,” she cried, “the house where we would live!” and raced, a flying form of air and sunlight, into a tumbled cottage that had no roof, no floor or windows. Wild bees had hung a nest against the broken wall.

He followed her. There was sunlight in the room, and there were flowers. Upon a rude, simple table lay a bowl of cream, with eggs and honey and butter close against a home-made loaf. They sank into each other’s arms upon a couch of fragrant grass and boughs against the window where wild roses bloomed … and the bees flew in and out.

It was Bussana, the so-called earthquake village, because a sudden earthquake had fallen on it one summer morning when all the inhabitants were at church. The crashing roof killed sixty, the tumbling walls another hundred, and the rest had left it where it stood.

“The Church,” he said, vaguely remembering the story. “They were at prayer——”

The girl laughed carelessly in his ear, setting his blood in a rush and quiver of delicious joy. He felt himself untamed, wild as the wind and animals. “The true God claimed His own,” she whispered. “He came back. Ah, they were not ready—the old priests had seen to that. But he came. They heard his music. Then his tread shook the olive groves, the old ground danced, the hills leapt for joy——”

“And the houses crumbled,” he laughed as he pressed her closer to his heart—

“And now we’ve come back!” she cried merrily. “We’ve come back to worship and be glad!” She nestled into him, while the sun rose higher.

“I hear them—hark!” she cried, and again leapt, dancing from his side. Again he followed her like wind. Through the broken window they saw the naked fauns and nymphs and satyrs rolling, dancing, shaking their soft hoofs amid the ferns and brambles. Towards the appalling, ruptured church they sped with feet of light and air. A roar of happy song and laughter rose.

“Come!” he cried. “We must go too.”

Hand in hand they raced to join the tumbling, dancing throng. She was in his arms and on his back and flung across his shoulders, as he ran. They reached the broken building, its whole roof gone sliding years ago, its walls a-tremble still, its shattered shrines alive with nesting birds.

“Hush!” she whispered in a tone of awe, yet pleasure. “He is there!”
She pointed, her bare arm outstretched above the bending heads.

There, in the empty space, where once stood sacred Host and Cup, he sat, filling the niche sublimely and with awful power. His shaggy form, benign yet terrible, rose through the broken stone. The great eyes shone and smiled. The feet were lost in brambles.

“God!” cried a wild, frightened voice yet with deep worship in it—and the old familiar panic came with portentous swiftness. The great Figure rose.

The birds flew screaming, the animals sought holes, the worshippers, laughing and glad a moment ago, rushed tumbling over one another for the doors.

“He goes again! Who called? Who called like that? His feet shake the ground!”

“It is the earthquake!” screamed a woman’s shrill accents in ghastly terror.

“Kiss me—one kiss before we forget again…!” sighed a laughing, passionate voice against his ear. “Once more your arms, your heart beating on my lips…! You recognised his power. You are now altogether! We shall remember!”

But he woke, with the heavy bed-clothes stuffed against his mouth and the wind of early morning sighing mournfully about the hotel walls.

* * * * *

“Have they left again—those ladies?” he inquired casually of the head waiter, pointing to the table. “They were here last night at dinner.”

“Who do you mean?” replied the man, stupidly, gazing at the spot indicated with a face quite blank. “Last night—at dinner?” He tried to think.

“An English lady, elderly, with—her daughter——” at which moment precisely the girl came in alone. Lunch was over, the room empty. There was a second’s difficult pause. It seemed ridiculous not to speak. Their eyes met. The girl blushed furiously.

He was very quick for an Englishman. “I was allowing myself to ask after your mother,” he began. “I was afraid”—he glanced at the table laid for one—”she was not well, perhaps?”

“Oh, but that’s very kind of you, I’m sure.” She smiled. He saw the small white even teeth….

And before three days had passed, he was so deeply in love that he simply couldn’t help himself.

“I believe,” he said lamely, “this is yours. You dropped it, you know.
Er—may I keep it? It’s only an olive.”

They were, of course, in an olive grove when he asked it, and the sun was setting.

She looked at him, looked him up and down, looked at his ears, his eyes. He felt that in another second her little fingers would slip up and tweak the first, or close the second with a soft pressure——

“Tell me,” he begged: “did you dream anything—that first night I saw you?”

She took a quick step backwards. “No,” she said, as he followed her more quickly still, “I don’t think I did. But,” she went on breathlessly as he caught her up, “I knew—from the way you picked it up——”

“Knew what?” he demanded, holding her tightly so that she could not get away again.

“That you were already half and half, but would soon be altogether.”

And, as he kissed her, he felt her soft little fingers tweak his ears.

Algernon_Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood was a British writer and broadcaster.

Throughout his adult life, he was an occasional essayist for various periodicals. In his late thirties, he moved back to England and started to write stories of the supernatural. He was successful, writing at least ten original collections of short stories and later telling them on radio and television. He also wrote fourteen novels, several children’s books, and a number of plays, most of which were produced but not published. He was an avid lover of nature and the outdoors, and many of his stories reflect this. To satisfy his interest in the supernatural, he joined The Ghost Club… Jack Sullivan stated that “Blackwood’s life parallels his work more neatly than perhaps that of any other ghost story writer. – Wikipedia

Notable works The Centaur, “The Willows”, “The Wendigo”

5 Weird Fiction Authors

Not sure what to add next to your reading pile?

  1. Charles Baudelaire.
    Portrait of Baudelaire, painted in 1844 by Emile Deroy (1820–1846)
    Portrait of Baudelaire, painted in 1844 by Emile Deroy (1820–1846)

    French. You’ll probably like his work if you enjoy Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas de Quincey and Emanuel Swedenborg. Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du Mal; (1857; The Flowers of Evil) which was perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century. Similarly, his Petits poèmes en prose (1868; “Little Prose Poems”) was the most successful and innovative early experiment in prose poetry of the time. Goodreads

  2. Mike Russell. British. You’ll probably like his work if you enjoy Philip K. Dick, Angela Carter, Algernon Blackwood and Franz Kafka. Mike Russell is a British author best known for his books Nothing Is Strange, Strange Medicine and Strungballs. Goodreads

    Nothing Is Strange by Mike Russell
    Nothing Is Strange by Mike Russell
  3. Matthew Lewis. British. You’ll probably like his work if you enjoy Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Matthew Gregory Lewis was an English novelist and dramatist, often referred to as “Monk” Lewis, because of the success of his classic Gothic novel, The Monk. Goodreads

    The Monk (Oxford World's Classics)
    The Monk (Oxford World’s Classics)
  4. China Mieville. British. You’ll probably like his work if you enjoy J.G. Ballard, Michael de Larrabeiti, Thomas Disch and William Durbin. A British “fantastic fiction” writer. Goodreads. He’s the fifteenth most followed author on Goodreads, with over 200,000 book ratings. Titles include Embassytown, Un Lun Dun and Railsea.
  5. Howard Wandrei.
    MURPHY: THE COLLECTED FANTASY TALES OF HOWARD WANDREI VOLUME II
    MURPHY: THE COLLECTED FANTASY TALES OF HOWARD WANDREI VOLUME II

    American. You’ll probably like his work if you enjoy William Peter Blatty and Shirley Jackson. Howard Elmer Wandrei was a US artist and writer. Goodreads

THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY IN NEW YORK by Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951)

Genre Fantasy, Horror, Weird fiction

Algernon Henry Blackwood, CBE (14 March 1869 – 10 December 1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre. He was also a journalist and a broadcasting narrator… Blackwood was born in Shooter’s Hill (now part of south-east London, but then part of northwest Kent), between 1871 and 1880 lived at Crayford Manor House, Crayford[3] and was educated at Wellington College. His father was a Post Office administrator who, according to Peter Penzoldt, “though not devoid of genuine good-heartedness, had appallingly narrow religious ideas”… He was an avid lover of nature and the outdoors, and many of his stories are affected by this. To satisfy his interest in the supernatural, he joined the Ghost ClubGood ol’ Wikipedia

Algernon Blackwood was the author of many novels, including Dudley and Gilderoy: A Nonsense (1929), The Extra Day (1915) and The Fruit Stoners (1934), as well as many more short stories, such as The Singular Death of Morton (1910), Day and Night Stories (1917) and A Haunted Island (1906).

The lengthy “The Strange Adventure of a Private Secretary in New York,” is bizarrely unclassifiable as a horror tale. It combines suspense with baffling oddities and outright grotesque moments. Shorthouse now works as a secretary for Mr. Sidebotham, who dispatches him on an errand to a Mr. Garvey, a former business partner. The errand is delicate — with the hint that Garvey is blackmailing his old partner — and Shorthouse plans to finish it as soon as possible. This turns out to be difficult: Mr. Garvey lives in a spooky mansion with a creepy private servant, and the man reveals he has, uhm, bestial habits. Jim Shorthouse gets stuck in the awful mansion for the night, awaiting some horror that must be inevitable from all this insanity. Unfortunately, many of the story’s positives suffer in a frustrating ending that explains almost nothing. The heaps of anti-Semitism don’t help either. Black Gate

The above is all true, although I enjoy a quick-cut ending to a story. There are unfortunately numerous anti-Semitic references throughout the piece, which I’m sure the majority of living Blackwood fans do not share!

If you haven’t tried Blackwood before but you enjoy Dunsany or Lovecraft, give him a go. That statement can also be turned into: if you enjoy the story below, make sure you check out Dunsany and Lovecraft!

Some or all works by this author are in the public domain because they were published before January 1, 1923.

I

It was never quite clear to me how Jim Shorthouse managed to get his private secretaryship; but, once he got it, he kept it, and for some years he led a steady life and put money in the savings bank.

One morning his employer sent for him into the study, and it was evident to the secretary’s trained senses that there was something unusual in the air.

“Mr. Shorthouse,” he began, somewhat nervously, “I have never yet had the opportunity of observing whether or not you are possessed of personal courage.”

Shorthouse gasped, but he said nothing.  He was growing accustomed to the eccentricities of his chief.  Shorthouse was a Kentish man; Sidebotham was “raised” in Chicago; New York was the present place of residence.

“But,” the other continued, with a puff at his very black cigar, “I must consider myself a poor judge of human nature in future, if it is not one of your strongest qualities.”

The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation of so uncertain a compliment.  Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.

“I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and ­” He hesitated, and puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.

“I don’t think I’m afraid of anything in particular, sir ­except women,” interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief’s purpose.

“Humph!” he grunted.  “Well, there are no women in this case so far as I know.  But there may be other things that ­that hurt more.”

“Wants a special service of some kind, evidently,” was the secretary’s reflection.  “Personal violence?” he asked aloud.

“Possibly (puff), in fact (puff, puff) probably.”

Shorthouse smelt an increase of salary in the air.  It had a stimulating effect.

“I’ve had some experience of that article, sir,” he said shortly; “but I’m ready to undertake anything in reason.”

“I can’t say how much reason or unreason there may prove to be in this particular case.  It all depends.”

Mr. Sidebotham got up and locked the door of his study and drew down the blinds of both windows.  Then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and opened a black tin box.  He ferreted about among blue and white papers for a few seconds, enveloping himself as he did so in a cloud of blue tobacco smoke.

“I feel like a detective already,” Shorthouse laughed.

“Speak low, please,” returned the other, glancing round the room.  “We must observe the utmost secrecy.  Perhaps you would be kind enough to close the registers,” he went on in a still lower voice.  “Open registers have betrayed conversations before now.”

Shorthouse began to enter into the spirit of the thing.  He tiptoed across the floor and shut the two iron gratings in the wall that in American houses supply hot air and are termed “registers.”  Mr. Sidebotham had meanwhile found the paper he was looking for.  He held it in front of him and tapped it once or twice with the back of his right hand as if it were a stage letter and himself the villain of the melodrama.

“This is a letter from Joel Garvey, my old partner,” he said at length.  “You have heard me speak of him.”

The other bowed.  He knew that many years before Garvey & Sidebotham had been well known in the Chicago financial world.  He knew that the amazing rapidity with which they accumulated a fortune had only been surpassed by the amazing rapidity with which they had immediately afterwards disappeared into space.  He was further aware ­his position afforded facilities ­that each partner was still to some extent in the other’s power, and that each wished most devoutly that the other would die.

The sins of his employer’s early years did not concern him, however.  The man was kind and just, if eccentric; and Shorthouse, being in New York, did not probe to discover more particularly the sources whence his salary was so regularly paid.  Moreover, the two men had grown to like each other and there was a genuine feeling of trust and respect between them.

“I hope it’s a pleasant communication, sir,” he said in a low voice.

“Quite the reverse,” returned the other, fingering the paper nervously as he stood in front of the fire.

“Blackmail, I suppose.”

“Precisely.”  Mr. Sidebotham’s cigar was not burning well; he struck a match and applied it to the uneven edge, and presently his voice spoke through clouds of wreathing smoke.

“There are valuable papers in my possession bearing his signature.  I cannot inform you of their nature; but they are extremely valuable to me.  They belong, as a matter of fact, to Garvey as much as to me.  Only I’ve got them ­”

“I see.”

“Garvey writes that he wants to have his signature removed ­wants to cut it out with his own hand.  He gives reasons which incline me to consider his request ­”

“And you would like me to take him the papers and see that he does it?”

“And bring them back again with you,” he whispered, screwing up his eyes into a shrewd grimace.

“And bring them back again with me,” repeated the secretary.  “I understand perfectly.”

Shorthouse knew from unfortunate experience more than a little of the horrors of blackmail.  The pressure Garvey was bringing to bear upon his old enemy must be exceedingly strong.  That was quite clear.  At the same time, the commission that was being entrusted to him seemed somewhat quixotic in its nature.  He had already “enjoyed” more than one experience of his employer’s eccentricity, and he now caught himself wondering whether this same eccentricity did not sometimes go ­further than eccentricity.

“I cannot read the letter to you,” Mr. Sidebotham was explaining, “but I shall give it into your hands.  It will prove that you are my ­er ­my accredited representative.  I shall also ask you not to read the package of papers.  The signature in question you will find, of course, on the last page, at the bottom.”

There was a pause of several minutes during which the end of the cigar glowed eloquently.

“Circumstances compel me,” he went on at length almost in a whisper, “or I should never do this.  But you understand, of course, the thing is a ruse.  Cutting out the signature is a mere pretence.  It is nothing. What Garvey wants are the papers themselves.

The confidence reposed in the private secretary was not misplaced.  Shorthouse was as faithful to Mr. Sidebotham as a man ought to be to the wife that loves him.

The commission itself seemed very simple.  Garvey lived in solitude in the remote part of Long Island.  Shorthouse was to take the papers to him, witness the cutting out of the signature, and to be specially on his guard against any attempt, forcible or otherwise, to gain possession of them.  It seemed to him a somewhat ludicrous adventure, but he did not know all the facts and perhaps was not the best judge.

The two men talked in low voices for another hour, at the end of which Mr. Sidebotham drew up the blinds, opened the registers and unlocked the door.

Shorthouse rose to go.  His pockets were stuffed with papers and his head with instructions; but when he reached the door he hesitated and turned.

“Well?” said his chief.

Shorthouse looked him straight in the eye and said nothing.

“The personal violence, I suppose?” said the other.  Shorthouse bowed.

“I have not seen Garvey for twenty years,” he said; “all I can tell you is that I believe him to be occasionally of unsound mind.  I have heard strange rumours.  He lives alone, and in his lucid intervals studies chemistry.  It was always a hobby of his.  But the chances are twenty to one against his attempting violence.  I only wished to warn you ­in case ­I mean, so that you may be on the watch.”

He handed his secretary a Smith and Wesson revolver as he spoke.
Shorthouse slipped it into his hip pocket and went out of the room.

A drizzling cold rain was falling on fields covered with half-melted snow when Shorthouse stood, late in the afternoon, on the platform of the lonely little Long Island station and watched the train he had just left vanish into the distance.

It was a bleak country that Joel Garvey, Esq., formerly of Chicago, had chosen for his residence and on this particular afternoon it presented a more than usually dismal appearance.  An expanse of flat fields covered with dirty snow stretched away on all sides till the sky dropped down to meet them.  Only occasional farm buildings broke the monotony, and the road wound along muddy lanes and beneath dripping trees swathed in the cold raw fog that swept in like a pall of the dead from the sea.

It was six miles from the station to Garvey’s house, and the driver of the rickety buggy Shorthouse had found at the station was not communicative.  Between the dreary landscape and the drearier driver he fell back upon his own thoughts, which, but for the spice of adventure that was promised, would themselves have been even drearier than either.  He made up his mind that he would waste no time over the transaction.  The moment the signature was cut out he would pack up and be off.  The last train back to Brooklyn was 7.15; and he would have to walk the six miles of mud and snow, for the driver of the buggy had refused point-blank to wait for him.

For purposes of safety, Shorthouse had done what he flattered himself was rather a clever thing.  He had made up a second packet of papers identical in outside appearance with the first.  The inscription, the blue envelope, the red elastic band, and even a blot in the lower left-hand corner had been exactly reproduced.  Inside, of course, were only sheets of blank paper.  It was his intention to change the packets and to let Garvey see him put the sham one into the bag.  In case of violence the bag would be the point of attack, and he intended to lock it and throw away the key.  Before it could be forced open and the deception discovered there would be time to increase his chances of escape with the real packet.

It was five o’clock when the silent Jehu pulled up in front of a half-broken gate and pointed with his whip to a house that stood in its own grounds among trees and was just visible in the gathering gloom.  Shorthouse told him to drive up to the front door but the man refused.

“I ain’t runnin’ no risks,” he said; “I’ve got a family.”

This cryptic remark was not encouraging, but Shorthouse did not pause to decipher it.  He paid the man, and then pushed open the rickety old gate swinging on a single hinge, and proceeded to walk up the drive that lay dark between close-standing trees.  The house soon came into full view.  It was tall and square and had once evidently been white, but now the walls were covered with dirty patches and there were wide yellow streaks where the plaster had fallen away.  The windows stared black and uncompromising into the night.  The garden was overgrown with weeds and long grass, standing up in ugly patches beneath their burden of wet snow.  Complete silence reigned over all.  There was not a sign of life.  Not even a dog barked.  Only, in the distance, the wheels of the retreating carriage could be heard growing fainter and fainter.

As he stood in the porch, between pillars of rotting wood, listening to the rain dripping from the roof into the puddles of slushy snow, he was conscious of a sensation of utter desertion and loneliness such as he had never before experienced.  The forbidding aspect of the house had the immediate effect of lowering his spirits.  It might well have been the abode of monsters or demons in a child’s wonder tale, creatures that only dared to come out under cover of darkness.  He groped for the bell-handle, or knocker, and finding neither, he raised his stick and beat a loud tattoo on the door.  The sound echoed away in an empty space on the other side and the wind moaned past him between the pillars as if startled at his audacity.  But there was no sound of approaching footsteps and no one came to open the door.  Again he beat a tattoo, louder and longer than the first one; and, having done so, waited with his back to the house and stared across the unkempt garden into the fast gathering shadows.

Then he turned suddenly, and saw that the door was standing ajar.  It had been quietly opened and a pair of eyes were peering at him round the edge.  There was no light in the hall beyond and he could only just make out the shape of a dim human face.

“Does Mr. Garvey live here?” he asked in a firm voice.

“Who are you?” came in a man’s tones.

“I’m Mr. Sidebotham’s private secretary.  I wish to see Mr. Garvey on important business.”

“Are you expected?”

“I suppose so,” he said impatiently, thrusting a card through the opening.  “Please take my name to him at once, and say I come from Mr. Sidebotham on the matter Mr. Garvey wrote about.”

The man took the card, and the face vanished into the darkness, leaving Shorthouse standing in the cold porch with mingled feelings of impatience and dismay.  The door, he now noticed for the first time, was on a chain and could not open more than a few inches.  But it was the manner of his reception that caused uneasy reflections to stir within him ­reflections that continued for some minutes before they were interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps and the flicker of a light in the hall.

The next instant the chain fell with a rattle, and gripping his bag tightly, he walked into a large ill-smelling hall of which he could only just see the ceiling.  There was no light but the nickering taper held by the man, and by its uncertain glimmer Shorthouse turned to examine him.  He saw an undersized man of middle age with brilliant, shifting eyes, a curling black beard, and a nose that at once proclaimed him a Jew.  His shoulders were bent, and, as he watched him replacing the chain, he saw that he wore a peculiar black gown like a priest’s cassock reaching to the feet.  It was altogether a lugubrious figure of a man, sinister and funereal, yet it seemed in perfect harmony with the general character of its surroundings.  The hall was devoid of furniture of any kind, and against the dingy walls stood rows of old picture frames, empty and disordered, and odd-looking bits of wood-work that appeared doubly fantastic as their shadows danced queerly over the floor in the shifting light.

“If you’ll come this way, Mr. Garvey will see you presently,” said the Jew gruffly, crossing the floor and shielding the taper with a bony hand.  He never once raised his eyes above the level of the visitor’s waistcoat, and, to Shorthouse, he somehow suggested a figure from the dead rather than a man of flesh and blood.  The hall smelt decidedly ill.

All the more surprising, then, was the scene that met his eyes when the Jew opened the door at the further end and he entered a room brilliantly lit with swinging lamps and furnished with a degree of taste and comfort that amounted to luxury.  The walls were lined with handsomely bound books, and armchairs were arranged round a large mahogany desk in the middle of the room.  A bright fire burned in the grate and neatly framed photographs of men and women stood on the mantelpiece on either side of an elaborately carved clock.  French windows that opened like doors were partially concealed by warm red curtains, and on a sideboard against the wall stood decanters and glasses, with several boxes of cigars piled on top of one another.  There was a pleasant odour of tobacco about the room.  Indeed, it was in such glowing contrast to the chilly poverty of the hall that Shorthouse already was conscious of a distinct rise in the thermometer of his spirits.

Then he turned and saw the Jew standing in the doorway with his eyes fixed upon him, somewhere about the middle button of his waistcoat.  He presented a strangely repulsive appearance that somehow could not be attributed to any particular detail, and the secretary associated him in his mind with a monstrous black bird of prey more than anything else.

“My time is short,” he said abruptly; “I hope Mr. Garvey will not keep me waiting.”

A strange flicker of a smile appeared on the Jew’s ugly face and vanished as quickly as it came.  He made a sort of deprecating bow by way of reply.  Then he blew out the taper and went out, closing the door noiselessly behind him.

Shorthouse was alone.  He felt relieved.  There was an air of obsequious insolence about the old Jew that was very offensive.  He began to take note of his surroundings.  He was evidently in the library of the house, for the walls were covered with books almost up to the ceiling.  There was no room for pictures.  Nothing but the shining backs of well-bound volumes looked down upon him.  Four brilliant lights hung from the ceiling and a reading lamp with a polished reflector stood among the disordered masses of papers on the desk.

The lamp was not lit, but when Shorthouse put his hand upon it he found it was warm.  The room had evidently only just been vacated.

Apart from the testimony of the lamp, however, he had already felt, without being able to give a reason for it, that the room had been occupied a few moments before he entered.  The atmosphere over the desk seemed to retain the disturbing influence of a human being; an influence, moreover, so recent that he felt as if the cause of it were still in his immediate neighbourhood.  It was difficult to realise that he was quite alone in the room and that somebody was not in hiding.  The finer counterparts of his senses warned him to act as if he were being observed; he was dimly conscious of a desire to fidget and look round, to keep his eyes in every part of the room at once, and to conduct himself generally as if he were the object of careful human observation.

How far he recognised the cause of these sensations it is impossible to say; but they were sufficiently marked to prevent his carrying out a strong inclination to get up and make a search of the room.  He sat quite still, staring alternately at the backs of the books, and at the red curtains; wondering all the time if he was really being watched, or if it was only the imagination playing tricks with him.

A full quarter of an hour passed, and then twenty rows of volumes suddenly shifted out towards him, and he saw that a door had opened in the wall opposite.  The books were only sham backs after all, and when they moved back again with the sliding door, Shorthouse saw the figure of Joel Garvey standing before him.

Surprise almost took his breath away.  He had expected to see an unpleasant, even a vicious apparition with the mark of the beast unmistakably upon its face; but he was wholly unprepared for the elderly, tall, fine-looking man who stood in front of him ­well-groomed, refined, vigorous, with a lofty forehead, clear grey eyes, and a hooked nose dominating a clean shaven mouth and chin of considerable character ­a distinguished looking man altogether.

“I’m afraid I’ve kept you waiting, Mr. Shorthouse,” he said in a pleasant voice, but with no trace of a smile in the mouth or eyes.  “But the fact is, you know, I’ve a mania for chemistry, and just when you were announced I was at the most critical moment of a problem and was really compelled to bring it to a conclusion.”

Shorthouse had risen to meet him, but the other motioned him to resume his seat.  It was borne in upon him irresistibly that Mr. Joel Garvey, for reasons best known to himself, was deliberately lying, and he could not help wondering at the necessity for such an elaborate misrepresentation.  He took off his overcoat and sat down.

“I’ve no doubt, too, that the door startled you,” Garvey went on, evidently reading something of his guest’s feelings in his face.  “You probably had not suspected it.  It leads into my little laboratory.  Chemistry is an absorbing study to me, and I spend most of my time there.”  Mr. Garvey moved up to the armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace and sat down.

Shorthouse made appropriate answers to these remarks, but his mind was really engaged in taking stock of Mr. Sidebotham’s old-time partner.  So far there was no sign of mental irregularity and there was certainly nothing about him to suggest violent wrong-doing or coarseness of living.  On the whole, Mr. Sidebotham’s secretary was most pleasantly surprised, and, wishing to conclude his business as speedily as possible, he made a motion towards the bag for the purpose of opening it, when his companion interrupted him quickly ­

“You are Mr. Sidebotham’s private secretary, are you not?” he asked.

Shorthouse replied that he was.  “Mr. Sidebotham,” he went on to explain, “has entrusted me with the papers in the case and I have the honour to return to you your letter of a week ago.”  He handed the letter to Garvey, who took it without a word and deliberately placed it in the fire.  He was not aware that the secretary was ignorant of its contents, yet his face betrayed no signs of feeling.  Shorthouse noticed, however, that his eyes never left the fire until the last morsel had been consumed.  Then he looked up and said, “You are familiar then with the facts of this most peculiar case?”

Shorthouse saw no reason to confess his ignorance.

“I have all the papers, Mr. Garvey,” he replied, taking them out of the bag, “and I should be very glad if we could transact our business as speedily as possible.  If you will cut out your signature I ­”

“One moment, please,” interrupted the other.  “I must, before we proceed further, consult some papers in my laboratory.  If you will allow me to leave you alone a few minutes for this purpose we can conclude the whole matter in a very short time.”

Shorthouse did not approve of this further delay, but he had no option than to acquiesce, and when Garvey had left the room by the private door he sat and waited with the papers in his hand.  The minutes went by and the other did not return.  To pass the time he thought of taking the false packet from his coat to see that the papers were in order, and the move was indeed almost completed, when something ­he never knew what ­warned him to desist.  The feeling again came over him that he was being watched, and he leaned back in his chair with the bag on his knees and waited with considerable impatience for the other’s return.  For more than twenty minutes he waited, and when at length the door opened and Garvey appeared, with profuse apologies for the delay, he saw by the clock that only a few minutes still remained of the time he had allowed himself to catch the last train.

“Now I am completely at your service,” he said pleasantly; “you must, of course, know, Mr. Shorthouse, that one cannot be too careful in matters of this kind ­especially,” he went on, speaking very slowly and impressively, “in dealing with a man like my former partner, whose mind, as you doubtless may have discovered, is at times very sadly affected.”

Shorthouse made no reply to this.  He felt that the other was watching him as a cat watches a mouse.

“It is almost a wonder to me,” Garvey added, “that he is still at large.  Unless he has greatly improved it can hardly be safe for those who are closely associated with him.”

The other began to feel uncomfortable.  Either this was the other side of the story, or it was the first signs of mental irresponsibility.

“All business matters of importance require the utmost care in my opinion, Mr. Garvey,” he said at length, cautiously.

“Ah! then, as I thought, you have had a great deal to put up with from him,” Garvey said, with his eyes fixed on his companion’s face.  “And, no doubt, he is still as bitter against me as he was years ago when the disease first showed itself?”

Although this last remark was a deliberate question and the questioner was waiting with fixed eyes for an answer, Shorthouse elected to take no notice of it.  Without a word he pulled the elastic band from the blue envelope with a snap and plainly showed his desire to conclude the business as soon as possible.  The tendency on the other’s part to delay did not suit him at all.

“But never personal violence, I trust, Mr. Shorthouse,” he added.

“Never.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Garvey said in a sympathetic voice, “very glad to hear it.  And now,” he went on, “if you are ready we can transact this little matter of business before dinner.  It will only take a moment.”

He drew a chair up to the desk and sat down, taking a pair of scissors from a drawer.  His companion approached with the papers in his hand, unfolding them as he came.  Garvey at once took them from him, and after turning over a few pages he stopped and cut out a piece of writing at the bottom of the last sheet but one.

Holding it up to him Shorthouse read the words “Joel Garvey” in faded ink.

“There!  That’s my signature,” he said, “and I’ve cut it out.  It must be nearly twenty years since I wrote it, and now I’m going to burn it.”

He went to the fire and stooped over to burn the little slip of paper, and while he watched it being consumed Shorthouse put the real papers in his pocket and slipped the imitation ones into the bag.  Garvey turned just in time to see this latter movement.

“I’m putting the papers back,” Shorthouse said quietly; “you’ve done with them, I think.”

“Certainly,” he replied as, completely deceived, he saw the blue envelope disappear into the black bag and watched Shorthouse turn the key.  “They no longer have the slightest interest for me.”  As he spoke he moved over to the sideboard, and pouring himself out a small glass of whisky asked his visitor if he might do the same for him.  But the visitor declined and was already putting on his overcoat when Garvey turned with genuine surprise on his face.

“You surely are not going back to New York to-night, Mr. Shorthouse?” he said, in a voice of astonishment.

“I’ve just time to catch the 7.15 if I’m quick.”

“But I never heard of such a thing,” Garvey said.  “Of course I took it for granted that you would stay the night.”

“It’s kind of you,” said Shorthouse, “but really I must return to-night.  I never expected to stay.”

The two men stood facing each other.  Garvey pulled out his watch.

“I’m exceedingly sorry,” he said; “but, upon my word, I took it for granted you would stay.  I ought to have said so long ago.  I’m such a lonely fellow and so little accustomed to visitors that I fear I forgot my manners altogether.  But in any case, Mr. Shorthouse, you cannot catch the 7.15, for it’s already after six o’clock, and that’s the last train to-night.”  Garvey spoke very quickly, almost eagerly, but his voice sounded genuine.

“There’s time if I walk quickly,” said the young man with decision, moving towards the door.  He glanced at his watch as he went.  Hitherto he had gone by the clock on the mantelpiece.  To his dismay he saw that it was, as his host had said, long after six.  The clock was half an hour slow, and he realised at once that it was no longer possible to catch the train.

Had the hands of the clock been moved back intentionally?  Had he been purposely detained?  Unpleasant thoughts flashed into his brain and made him hesitate before taking the next step.  His employer’s warning rang in his ears.  The alternative was six miles along a lonely road in the dark, or a night under Garvey’s roof.  The former seemed a direct invitation to catastrophe, if catastrophe there was planned to be.  The latter ­well, the choice was certainly small.  One thing, however, he realised, was plain ­he must show neither fear nor hesitancy.

“My watch must have gained,” he observed quietly, turning the hands back without looking up.  “It seems I have certainly missed that train and shall be obliged to throw myself upon your hospitality.  But, believe me, I had no intention of putting you out to any such extent.”

“I’m delighted,” the other said.  “Defer to the judgment of an older man and make yourself comfortable for the night.  There’s a bitter storm outside, and you don’t put me out at all.  On the contrary it’s a great pleasure.  I have so little contact with the outside world that it’s really a god-send to have you.”

The man’s face changed as he spoke.  His manner was cordial and sincere.  Shorthouse began to feel ashamed of his doubts and to read between the lines of his employer’s warning.  He took off his coat and the two men moved to the armchairs beside the fire.

“You see,” Garvey went on in a lowered voice, “I understand your hesitancy perfectly.  I didn’t know Sidebotham all those years without knowing a good deal about him ­perhaps more than you do.  I’ve no doubt, now, he filled your mind with all sorts of nonsense about me ­probably told you that I was the greatest villain unhung, eh? and all that sort of thing?  Poor fellow!  He was a fine sort before his mind became unhinged.  One of his fancies used to be that everybody else was insane, or just about to become insane.  Is he still as bad as that?”

“Few men,” replied Shorthouse, with the manner of making a great confidence, but entirely refusing to be drawn, “go through his experiences and reach his age without entertaining delusions of one kind or another.”

“Perfectly true,” said Garvey.  “Your observation is evidently keen.”

“Very keen indeed,” Shorthouse replied, taking his cue neatly; “but, of course, there are some things” ­and here he looked cautiously over his shoulder “there are some things one cannot talk about too circumspectly.”

“I understand perfectly and respect your reserve.”

There was a little more conversation and then Garvey got up and excused himself on the plea of superintending the preparation of the bedroom.

“It’s quite an event to have a visitor in the house, and I want to make you as comfortable as possible,” he said.  “Marx will do better for a little supervision.  And,” he added with a laugh as he stood in the doorway, “I want you to carry back a good account to Sidebotham.”

II

The tall form disappeared and the door was shut.  The conversation of the past few minutes had come somewhat as a revelation to the secretary.  Garvey seemed in full possession of normal instincts.  There was no doubt as to the sincerity of his manner and intentions.  The suspicions of the first hour began to vanish like mist before the sun.  Sidebotham’s portentous warnings and the mystery with which he surrounded the whole episode had been allowed to unduly influence his mind.  The loneliness of the situation and the bleak nature of the surroundings had helped to complete the illusion.  He began to be ashamed of his suspicions and a change commenced gradually to be wrought in his thoughts.  Anyhow a dinner and a bed were preferable to six miles in the dark, no dinner, and a cold train into the bargain.

Garvey returned presently.  “We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said, dropping into the deep armchair on the other side of the fire.  “Marx is a good servant if you watch him all the time.  You must always stand over a Jew, though, if you want things done properly.  They’re tricky and uncertain unless they’re working for their own interest.  But Marx might be worse, I’ll admit.  He’s been with me for nearly twenty years ­cook, valet, housemaid, and butler all in one.  In the old days, you know, he was a clerk in our office in Chicago.”

Garvey rattled on and Shorthouse listened with occasional remarks thrown in.  The former seemed pleased to have somebody to talk to and the sound of his own voice was evidently sweet music in his ears.  After a few minutes, he crossed over to the sideboard and again took up the decanter of whisky, holding it to the light.  “You will join me this time,” he said pleasantly, pouring out two glasses, “it will give us an appetite for dinner,” and this time Shorthouse did not refuse.  The liquor was mellow and soft and the men took two glasses apiece.

“Excellent,” remarked the secretary.

“Glad you appreciate it,” said the host, smacking his lips.  “It’s very old whisky, and I rarely touch it when I’m alone.  But this,” he added, “is a special occasion, isn’t it?”

Shorthouse was in the act of putting his glass down when something drew his eyes suddenly to the other’s face.  A strange note in the man’s voice caught his attention and communicated alarm to his nerves.  A new light shone in Garvey’s eyes and there flitted momentarily across his strong features the shadow of something that set the secretary’s nerves tingling.  A mist spread before his eyes and the unaccountable belief rose strong in him that he was staring into the visage of an untamed animal.  Close to his heart there was something that was wild, fierce, savage.  An involuntary shiver ran over him and seemed to dispel the strange fancy as suddenly as it had come.  He met the other’s eye with a smile, the counterpart of which in his heart was vivid horror.

“It is a special occasion,” he said, as naturally as possible, “and, allow me to add, very special whisky.”

Garvey appeared delighted.  He was in the middle of a devious tale describing how the whisky came originally into his possession when the door opened behind them and a grating voice announced that dinner was ready.  They followed the cassocked form of Marx across the dirty hall, lit only by the shaft of light that followed them from the library door, and entered a small room where a single lamp stood upon a table laid for dinner.  The walls were destitute of pictures, and the windows had Venetian blinds without curtains.  There was no fire in the grate, and when the men sat down facing each other Shorthouse noticed that, while his own cover was laid with its due proportion of glasses and cutlery, his companion had nothing before him but a soup plate, without fork, knife, or spoon beside it.

“I don’t know what there is to offer you,” he said; “but I’m sure Marx has done the best he can at such short notice.  I only eat one course for dinner, but pray take your time and enjoy your food.”

Marx presently set a plate of soup before the guest, yet so loathsome was the immediate presence of this old Hebrew servitor, that the spoonfuls disappeared somewhat slowly.  Garvey sat and watched him.

Shorthouse said the soup was delicious and bravely swallowed another mouthful.  In reality his thoughts were centred upon his companion, whose manners were giving evidence of a gradual and curious change.  There was a decided difference in his demeanour, a difference that the secretary feltat first, rather than saw.  Garvey’s quiet self-possession was giving place to a degree of suppressed excitement that seemed so far inexplicable.  His movements became quick and nervous, his eye shifting and strangely brilliant, and his voice, when he spoke, betrayed an occasional deep tremor.  Something unwonted was stirring within him and evidently demanding every moment more vigorous manifestation as the meal proceeded.

Intuitively Shorthouse was afraid of this growing excitement, and while negotiating some uncommonly tough pork chops he tried to lead the conversation on to the subject of chemistry, of which in his Oxford days he had been an enthusiastic student.  His companion, however, would none of it.  It seemed to have lost interest for him, and he would barely condescend to respond.  When Marx presently returned with a plate of steaming eggs and bacon the subject dropped of its own accord.

“An inadequate dinner dish,” Garvey said, as soon as the man was gone; “but better than nothing, I hope.”

Shorthouse remarked that he was exceedingly fond of bacon and eggs, and, looking up with the last word, saw that Garvey’s face was twitching convulsively and that he was almost wriggling in his chair.  He quieted down, however, under the secretary’s gaze and observed, though evidently with an effort ­

“Very good of you to say so.  Wish I could join you, only I never eat such stuff.  I only take one course for dinner.”

Shorthouse began to feel some curiosity as to what the nature of this one course might be, but he made no further remark and contented himself with noting mentally that his companion’s excitement seemed to be rapidly growing beyond his control.  There was something uncanny about it, and he began to wish he had chosen the alternative of the walk to the station.

“I’m glad to see you never speak when Marx is in the room,” said Garvey presently.  “I’m sure it’s better not.  Don’t you think so?”

He appeared to wait eagerly for the answer.

“Undoubtedly,” said the puzzled secretary.

“Yes,” the other went on quickly.  “He’s an excellent man, but he has one drawback ­a really horrid one.  You may ­but, no, you could hardly have noticed it yet.”

“Not drink, I trust,” said Shorthouse, who would rather have discussed any other subject than the odious Jew.

“Worse than that a great deal,” Garvey replied, evidently expecting the other to draw him out.  But Shorthouse was in no mood to hear anything horrible, and he declined to step into the trap.

“The best of servants have their faults,” he said coldly.

“I’ll tell you what it is if you like,” Garvey went on, still speaking very low and leaning forward over the table so that his face came close to the flame of the lamp, “only we must speak quietly in case he’s listening.  I’ll tell you what it is ­if you think you won’t be frightened.”

“Nothing frightens me,” he laughed. (Garvey must understand that at all events.) “Nothing can frighten me,” he repeated.

“I’m glad of that; for it frightens me a good deal sometimes.”

Shorthouse feigned indifference.  Yet he was aware that his heart was beating a little quicker and that there was a sensation of chilliness in his back.  He waited in silence for what was to come.

“He has a horrible predilection for vacuums,” Garvey went on presently in a still lower voice and thrusting his face farther forward under the lamp.

“Vacuums!” exclaimed the secretary in spite of himself.  “What in the world do you mean?”

“What I say of course.  He’s always tumbling into them, so that I can’t find him or get at him.  He hides there for hours at a time, and for the life of me I can’t make out what he does there.”

Shorthouse stared his companion straight in the eyes.  What in the name of Heaven was he talking about?

“Do you suppose he goes there for a change of air, or ­or to escape?” he went on in a louder voice.

Shorthouse could have laughed outright but for the expression of the other’s face.

“I should not think there was much air of any sort in a vacuum,” he said quietly.

“That’s exactly what I feel,” continued Garvey with ever growing excitement.  “That’s the horrid part of it.  How the devil does he live there?  You see ­”

“Have you ever followed him there?” interrupted the secretary.  The other leaned back in his chair and drew a deep sigh.

“Never!  It’s impossible.  You see I can’t follow him.  There’s not room for two.  A vacuum only holds one comfortably.  Marx knows that.  He’s out of my reach altogether once he’s fairly inside.  He knows the best side of a bargain.  He’s a regular Jew.”

“That is a drawback to a servant, of course ­” Shorthouse spoke slowly, with his eyes on his plate.

“A drawback,” interrupted the other with an ugly chuckle, “I call it a draw-in, that’s what I call it.”

“A draw-in does seem a more accurate term,” assented Shorthouse.  “But,” he went on, “I thought that nature abhorred a vacuum.  She used to, when I was at school ­though perhaps ­it’s so long ago ­”

He hesitated and looked up.  Something in Garvey’s face ­something he had felt before he looked up ­stopped his tongue and froze the words in his throat.  His lips refused to move and became suddenly dry.  Again the mist rose before his eyes and the appalling shadow dropped its veil over the face before him.  Garvey’s features began to burn and glow.  Then they seemed to coarsen and somehow slip confusedly together.  He stared for a second it seemed only for a second ­into the visage of a ferocious and abominable animal; and then, as suddenly as it had come, the filthy shadow of the beast passed off, the mist melted out, and with a mighty effort over his nerves he forced himself to finish his sentence.

“You see it’s so long since I’ve given attention to such things,” he stammered.  His heart was beating rapidly, and a feeling of oppression was gathering over it.

“It’s my peculiar and special study on the other hand,” Garvey resumed.  “I’ve not spent all these years in my laboratory to no purpose, I can assure you.  Nature, I know for a fact,” he added with unnatural warmth, “does not abhor a vacuum.  On the contrary, she’s uncommonly fond of ’em, much too fond, it seems, for the comfort of my little household.  If there were fewer vacuums and more abhorrence we should get on better ­a damned sight better in my opinion.”

“Your special knowledge, no doubt, enables you to speak with authority,” Shorthouse said, curiosity and alarm warring with other mixed feelings in his mind; “but how can a man tumble into a vacuum?”

“You may well ask.  That’s just it.  How can he?  It’s preposterous and I can’t make it out at all.  Marx knows, but he won’t tell me.  Jews know more than we do.  For my part I have reason to believe ­” He stopped and listened.  “Hush! here he comes,” he added, rubbing his hands together as if in glee and fidgeting in his chair.

Steps were heard coming down the passage, and as they approached the door Garvey seemed to give himself completely over to an excitement he could not control.  His eyes were fixed on the door and he began clutching the tablecloth with both hands.  Again his face was screened by the loathsome shadow.  It grew wild, wolfish.  As through a mask, that concealed, and yet was thin enough to let through a suggestion of, the beast crouching behind, there leaped into his countenance the strange look of the animal in the human ­the expression of the were-wolf, the monster.  The change in all its loathsomeness came rapidly over his features, which began to lose their outline.  The nose flattened, dropping with broad nostrils over thick lips.  The face rounded, filled, and became squat.  The eyes, which, luckily for Shorthouse, no longer sought his own, glowed with the light of untamed appetite and bestial greed.  The hands left the cloth and grasped the edges of the plate, and then clutched the cloth again.

“This is my course coming now,” said Garvey, in a deep guttural voice.  He was shivering.  His upper lip was partly lifted and showed the teeth, white and gleaming.

A moment later the door opened and Marx hurried into the room and set a dish in front of his master.  Garvey half rose to meet him, stretching out his hands and grinning horribly.  With his mouth he made a sound like the snarl of an animal.  The dish before him was steaming, but the slight vapour rising from it betrayed by its odour that it was not born of a fire of coals.  It was the natural heat of flesh warmed by the fires of life only just expelled.  The moment the dish rested on the table Garvey pushed away his own plate and drew the other up close under his mouth.  Then he seized the food in both hands and commenced to tear it with his teeth, grunting as he did so.  Shorthouse closed his eyes, with a feeling of nausea.  When he looked up again the lips and jaw of the man opposite were stained with crimson.  The whole man was transformed.  A feasting tiger, starved and ravenous, but without a tiger’s grace ­this was what he watched for several minutes, transfixed with horror and disgust.

Marx had already taken his departure, knowing evidently what was not good for the eyes to look upon, and Shorthouse knew at last that he was sitting face to face with a madman.

The ghastly meal was finished in an incredibly short time and nothing was left but a tiny pool of red liquid rapidly hardening.  Garvey leaned back heavily in his chair and sighed.  His smeared face, withdrawn now from the glare of the lamp, began to resume its normal appearance.  Presently he looked up at his guest and said in his natural voice ­

“I hope you’ve had enough to eat.  You wouldn’t care for this, you know,” with a downward glance.

Shorthouse met his eyes with an inward loathing, and it was impossible not to show some of the repugnance he felt.  In the other’s face, however, he thought he saw a subdued, cowed expression.  But he found nothing to say.

“Marx will be in presently,” Garvey went on.  “He’s either listening, or in a vacuum.”

“Does he choose any particular time for his visits?” the secretary managed to ask.

“He generally goes after dinner; just about this time, in fact.  But he’s not gone yet,” he added, shrugging his shoulders, “for I think I hear him coming.”

Shorthouse wondered whether vacuum was possibly synonymous with wine cellar, but gave no expression to his thoughts.  With chills of horror still running up and down his back, he saw Marx come in with a basin and towel, while Garvey thrust up his face just as an animal puts up its muzzle to be rubbed.

“Now we’ll have coffee in the library, if you’re ready,” he said, in the tone of a gentleman addressing his guests after a dinner party.

Shorthouse picked up the bag, which had lain all this time between his feet, and walked through the door his host held open for him.  Side by side they crossed the dark hall together, and, to his disgust, Garvey linked an arm in his, and with his face so close to the secretary’s ear that he felt the warm breath, said in a thick voice ­

“You’re uncommonly careful with that bag, Mr. Shorthouse.  It surely must contain something more than the bundle of papers.”

“Nothing but the papers,” he answered, feeling the hand burning upon his arm and wishing he were miles away from the house and its abominable occupants.

“Quite sure?” asked the other with an odious and suggestive chuckle.  “Is there any meat in it, fresh meat ­raw meat?”

The secretary felt, somehow, that at the least sign of fear the beast on his arm would leap upon him and tear him with his teeth.

“Nothing of the sort,” he answered vigorously.  “It wouldn’t hold enough to feed a cat.”

“True,” said Garvey with a vile sigh, while the other felt the hand upon his arm twitch up and down as if feeling the flesh.  “True, it’s too small to be of any real use.  As you say, it wouldn’t hold enough to feed a cat.”

Shorthouse was unable to suppress a cry.  The muscles of his fingers, too, relaxed in spite of himself and he let the black bag drop with a bang to the floor.  Garvey instantly withdrew his arm and turned with a quick movement.  But the secretary had regained his control as suddenly as he had lost it, and he met the maniac’s eyes with a steady and aggressive glare.

“There, you see, it’s quite light.  It makes no appreciable noise when I drop it.”  He picked it up and let it fall again, as if he had dropped it for the first time purposely.  The ruse was successful.

“Yes.  You’re right,” Garvey said, still standing in the doorway and staring at him.  “At any rate it wouldn’t hold enough for two,” he laughed.  And as he closed the door the horrid laughter echoed in the empty hall.

They sat down by a blazing fire and Shorthouse was glad to feel its warmth.  Marx presently brought in coffee.  A glass of the old whisky and a good cigar helped to restore equilibrium.  For some minutes the men sat in silence staring into the fire.  Then, without looking up, Garvey said in a quiet voice

“I suppose it was a shock to you to see me eat raw meat like that.  I must apologise if it was unpleasant to you.  But it’s all I can eat and it’s the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours.”

“Best nourishment in the world, no doubt; though I should think it might be a trifle strong for some stomachs.”

He tried to lead the conversation away from so unpleasant a subject, and went on to talk rapidly of the values of different foods, of vegetarianism and vegetarians, and of men who had gone for long periods without any food at all.  Garvey listened apparently without interest and had nothing to say.  At the first pause he jumped in eagerly.

“When the hunger is really great on me,” he said, still gazing into the fire, “I simply cannot control myself.  I must have raw meat ­the first I can get ­” Here he raised his shining eyes and Shorthouse felt his hair beginning to rise.

“It comes upon me so suddenly too.  I never can tell when to expect it.  A year ago the passion rose in me like a whirlwind and Marx was out and I couldn’t get meat.  I had to get something or I should have bitten myself.  Just when it was getting unbearable my dog ran out from beneath the sofa.  It was a spaniel.”

Shorthouse responded with an effort.  He hardly knew what he was saying and his skin crawled as if a million ants were moving over it.

There was a pause of several minutes.

“I’ve bitten Marx all over,” Garvey went on presently in his strange quiet voice, and as if he were speaking of apples; “but he’s bitter.  I doubt if the hunger could ever make me do it again.  Probably that’s what first drove him to take shelter in a vacuum.”  He chuckled hideously as he thought of this solution of his attendant’s disappearances.

Shorthouse seized the poker and poked the fire as if his life depended on it.  But when the banging and clattering was over Garvey continued his remarks with the same calmness.  The next sentence, however, was never finished.  The secretary had got upon his feet suddenly.

“I shall ask your permission to retire,” he said in a determined voice; “I’m tired to-night; will you be good enough to show me to my room?”

Garvey looked up at him with a curious cringing expression behind which there shone the gleam of cunning passion.

“Certainly,” he said, rising from his chair.  “You’ve had a tiring journey.  I ought to have thought of that before.”

He took the candle from the table and lit it, and the fingers that held the match trembled.

“We needn’t trouble Marx,” he explained.  “That beast’s in his vacuum by this time.”

III

They crossed the hall and began to ascend the carpetless wooden stairs.  They were in the well of the house and the air cut like ice.  Garvey, the flickering candle in his hand throwing his face into strong outline, led the way across the first landing and opened a door near the mouth of a dark passage.  A pleasant room greeted the visitor’s eyes, and he rapidly took in its points while his host walked over and lit two candles that stood on a table at the foot of the bed.  A fire burned brightly in the grate.  There were two windows, opening like doors, in the wall opposite, and a high canopied bed occupied most of the space on the right.  Panelling ran all round the room reaching nearly to the ceiling and gave a warm and cosy appearance to the whole; while the portraits that stood in alternate panels suggested somehow the atmosphere of an old country house in England.  Shorthouse was agreeably surprised.

“I hope you’ll find everything you need,” Garvey was saying in the doorway.  “If not, you have only to ring that bell by the fireplace.  Marx won’t hear it of course, but it rings in my laboratory, where I spend most of the night.”

Then, with a brief good-night, he went out and shut the door after him.  The instant he was gone Mr. Sidebotham’s private secretary did a peculiar thing.  He planted himself in the middle of the room with his back to the door, and drawing the pistol swiftly from his hip pocket levelled it across his left arm at the window.  Standing motionless in this position for thirty seconds he then suddenly swerved right round and faced in the other direction, pointing his pistol straight at the keyhole of the door.  There followed immediately a sound of shuffling outside and of steps retreating across the landing.

“On his knees at the keyhole,” was the secretary’s reflection.  “Just as I thought.  But he didn’t expect to look down the barrel of a pistol and it made him jump a little.”

As soon as the steps had gone downstairs and died away across the hall, Shorthouse went over and locked the door, stuffing a piece of crumpled paper into the second keyhole which he saw immediately above the first.  After that, he made a thorough search of the room.  It hardly repaid the trouble, for he found nothing unusual.  Yet he was glad he had made it.  It relieved him to find no one was in hiding under the bed or in the deep oak cupboard; and he hoped sincerely it was not the cupboard in which the unfortunate spaniel had come to its vile death.  The French windows, he discovered, opened on to a little balcony.  It looked on to the front, and there was a drop of less than twenty feet to the ground below.  The bed was high and wide, soft as feathers and covered with snowy sheets ­very inviting to a tired man; and beside the blazing fire were a couple of deep armchairs.

Altogether it was very pleasant and comfortable; but, tired though he was, Shorthouse had no intention of going to bed.  It was impossible to disregard the warning of his nerves.  They had never failed him before, and when that sense of distressing horror lodged in his bones he knew there was something in the wind and that a red flag was flying over the immediate future.  Some delicate instrument in his being, more subtle than the senses, more accurate than mere presentiment, had seen the red flag and interpreted its meaning.

Again it seemed to him, as he sat in an armchair over the fire, that his movements were being carefully watched from somewhere; and, not knowing what weapons might be used against him, he felt that his real safety lay in a rigid control of his mind and feelings and a stout refusal to admit that he was in the least alarmed.

The house was very still.  As the night wore on the wind dropped.  Only occasional bursts of sleet against the windows reminded him that the elements were awake and uneasy.  Once or twice the windows rattled and the rain hissed in the fire, but the roar of the wind in the chimney grew less and less and the lonely building was at last lapped in a great stillness.  The coals clicked, settling themselves deeper in the grate, and the noise of the cinders dropping with a tiny report into the soft heap of accumulated ashes was the only sound that punctuated the silence.

In proportion as the power of sleep grew upon him the dread of the situation lessened; but so imperceptibly, so gradually, and so insinuatingly that he scarcely realised the change.  He thought he was as wide awake to his danger as ever.  The successful exclusion of horrible mental pictures of what he had seen he attributed to his rigorous control, instead of to their true cause, the creeping over him of the soft influences of sleep.  The faces in the coals were so soothing; the armchair was so comfortable; so sweet the breath that gently pressed upon his eyelids; so subtle the growth of the sensation of safety.  He settled down deeper into the chair and in another moment would have been asleep when the red flag began to shake violently to and fro and he sat bolt upright as if he had been stabbed in the back.

Someone was coming up the stairs.  The boards creaked beneath a stealthy weight.

Shorthouse sprang from the chair and crossed the room swiftly, taking up his position beside the door, but out of range of the keyhole.  The two candles flared unevenly on the table at the foot of the bed.  The steps were slow and cautious ­it seemed thirty seconds between each one ­but the person who was taking them was very close to the door.  Already he had topped the stairs and was shuffling almost silently across the bit of landing.

The secretary slipped his hand into his pistol pocket and drew back further against the wall, and hardly had he completed the movement when the sounds abruptly ceased and he knew that somebody was standing just outside the door and preparing for a careful observation through the keyhole.

He was in no sense a coward.  In action he was never afraid.  It was the waiting and wondering and the uncertainty that might have loosened his nerves a little.  But, somehow, a wave of intense horror swept over him for a second as he thought of the bestial maniac and his attendant Jew; and he would rather have faced a pack of wolves than have to do with either of these men.

Something brushing gently against the door set his nerves tingling afresh and made him tighten his grasp on the pistol.  The steel was cold and slippery in his moist fingers.  What an awful noise it would make when he pulled the trigger!  If the door were to open how close he would be to the figure that came in!  Yet he knew it was locked on the inside and could not possibly open.  Again something brushed against the panel beside him and a second later the piece of crumpled paper fell from the keyhole to the floor, while the piece of thin wire that had accomplished this result showed its point for a moment in the room and was then swiftly withdrawn.

Somebody was evidently peering now through the keyhole, and realising this fact the spirit of attack entered into the heart of the beleaguered man.  Raising aloft his right hand he brought it suddenly down with a resounding crash upon the panel of the door next the keyhole ­a crash that, to the crouching eavesdropper, must have seemed like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky.  There was a gasp and a slight lurching against the door and the midnight listener rose startled and alarmed, for Shorthouse plainly heard the tread of feet across the landing and down the stairs till they were lost in the silences of the hall.  Only, this time, it seemed to him there were four feet instead of two.

Quickly stuffing the paper back into the keyhole, he was in the act of walking back to the fireplace when, over his shoulder, he caught sight of a white face pressed in outline against the outside of the window.  It was blurred in the streams of sleet, but the white of the moving eyes was unmistakable.  He turned instantly to meet it, but the face was withdrawn like a flash, and darkness rushed in to fill the gap where it had appeared.

“Watched on both sides,” he reflected.

But he was not to be surprised into any sudden action, and quietly walking over to the fireplace as if he had seen nothing unusual he stirred the coals a moment and then strolled leisurely over to the window.  Steeling his nerves, which quivered a moment in spite of his will, he opened the window and stepped out on to the balcony.  The wind, which he thought had dropped, rushed past him into the room and extinguished one of the candles, while a volley of fine cold rain burst all over his face.  At first he could see nothing, and the darkness came close up to his eyes like a wall.  He went a little farther on to the balcony and drew the window after him till it clashed.  Then he stood and waited.

But nothing touched him.  No one seemed to be there.  His eyes got accustomed to the blackness and he was able to make out the iron railing, the dark shapes of the trees beyond, and the faint light coming from the other window.  Through this he peered into the room, walking the length of the balcony to do so.  Of course he was standing in a shaft of light and whoever was crouching in the darkness below could plainly see him. Below? ­That there should be anyone above did not occur to him until, just as he was preparing to go in again, he became aware that something was moving in the darkness over his head.  He looked up, instinctively raising a protecting arm, and saw a long black line swinging against the dim wall of the house.  The shutters of the window on the next floor, whence it depended, were thrown open and moving backwards and forwards in the wind.  The line was evidently a thickish cord, for as he looked it was pulled in and the end disappeared in the darkness.

Shorthouse, trying to whistle to himself, peered over the edge of the balcony as if calculating the distance he might have to drop, and then calmly walked into the room again and closed the window behind him, leaving the latch so that the lightest touch would cause it to fly open.  He relit the candle and drew a straight-backed chair up to the table.  Then he put coal on the fire and stirred it up into a royal blaze.  He would willingly have folded the shutters over those staring windows at his back.  But that was out of the question.  It would have been to cut off his way of escape.

Sleep, for the time, was at a disadvantage.  His brain was full of blood and every nerve was tingling.  He felt as if countless eyes were upon him and scores of stained hands were stretching out from the corners and crannies of the house to seize him.  Crouching figures, figures of hideous Jews, stood everywhere about him where shelter was, creeping forward out of the shadows when he was not looking and retreating swiftly and silently when he turned his head.  Wherever he looked, other eyes met his own, and though they melted away under his steady, confident gaze, he knew they would wax and draw in upon him the instant his glances weakened and his will wavered.

Though there were no sounds, he knew that in the well of the house there was movement going on, and preparation.  And this knowledge, inasmuch as it came to him irresistibly and through other and more subtle channels than those of the senses kept the sense of horror fresh in his blood and made him alert and awake.

But, no matter how great the dread in the heart, the power of sleep will eventually overcome it.  Exhausted nature is irresistible, and as the minutes wore on and midnight passed, he realised that nature was vigorously asserting herself and sleep was creeping upon him from the extremities.

To lessen the danger he took out his pencil and began to draw the articles of furniture in the room.  He worked into elaborate detail the cupboard, the mantelpiece, and the bed, and from these he passed on to the portraits.  Being possessed of genuine skill, he found the occupation sufficiently absorbing.  It kept the blood in his brain, and that kept him awake.  The pictures, moreover, now that he considered them for the first time, were exceedingly well painted.  Owing to the dim light, he centred his attention upon the portraits beside the fireplace.  On the right was a woman, with a sweet, gentle face and a figure of great refinement; on the left was a full-size figure of a big handsome man with a full beard and wearing a hunting costume of ancient date.

From time to time he turned to the windows behind him, but the vision of the face was not repeated.  More than once, too, he went to the door and listened, but the silence was so profound in the house that he gradually came to believe the plan of attack had been abandoned.  Once he went out on to the balcony, but the sleet stung his face and he only had time to see that the shutters above were closed, when he was obliged to seek the shelter of the room again.

In this way the hours passed.  The fire died down and the room grew chilly.  Shorthouse had made several sketches of the two heads and was beginning to feel overpoweringly weary.  His feet and his hands were cold and his yawns were prodigious.  It seemed ages and ages since the steps had come to listen at his door and the face had watched him from the window.  A feeling of safety had somehow come to him.  In reality he was exhausted.  His one desire was to drop upon the soft white bed and yield himself up to sleep without any further struggle.

He rose from his chair with a series of yawns that refused to be stifled and looked at his watch.  It was close upon three in the morning.  He made up his mind that he would lie down with his clothes on and get some sleep.  It was safe enough, the door was locked on the inside and the window was fastened.  Putting the bag on the table near his pillow he blew out the candles and dropped with a sense of careless and delicious exhaustion upon the soft mattress.  In five minutes he was sound asleep.

There had scarcely been time for the dreams to come when he found himself lying side-ways across the bed with wide open eyes staring into the darkness.  Someone had touched him, and he had writhed away in his sleep as from something unholy.  The movement had awakened him.

The room was simply black.  No light came from the windows and the fire had gone out as completely as if water had been poured upon it.  He gazed into a sheet of impenetrable darkness that came close up to his face like a wall.

His first thought was for the papers in his coat and his hand flew to the pocket.  They were safe; and the relief caused by this discovery left his mind instantly free for other reflections.

And the realisation that at once came to him with a touch of dismay was, that during his sleep some definite change had been effected in the room.  He felt this with that intuitive certainty which amounts to positive knowledge.  The room was utterly still, but the corroboration that was speedily brought to him seemed at once to fill the darkness with a whispering, secret life that chilled his blood and made the sheet feel like ice against his cheek.

Hark!  This was it; there reached his ears, in which the blood was already buzzing with warning clamour, a dull murmur of something that rose indistinctly from the well of the house and became audible to him without passing through walls or doors.  There seemed no solid surface between him, lying on the bed, and the landing; between the landing and the stairs, and between the stairs and the hall beyond.

He knew that the door of the room was standing open!  Therefore it had been opened from the inside.  Yet the window was fastened, also on the inside.

Hardly was this realised when the conspiring silence of the hour was broken by another and a more definite sound.  A step was coming along the passage.  A certain bruise on the hip told Shorthouse that the pistol in his pocket was ready for use and he drew it out quickly and cocked it.  Then he just had time to slip over the edge of the bed and crouch down on the floor when the step halted on the threshold of the room.  The bed was thus between him and the open door.  The window was at his back.

He waited in the darkness.  What struck him as peculiar about the steps was that there seemed no particular desire to move stealthily.  There was no extreme caution.  They moved along in rather a slipshod way and sounded like soft slippers or feet in stockings.  There was something clumsy, irresponsible, almost reckless about the movement.

For a second the steps paused upon the threshold, but only for a second.  Almost immediately they came on into the room, and as they passed from the wood to the carpet Shorthouse noticed that they became wholly noiseless.  He waited in suspense, not knowing whether the unseen walker was on the other side of the room or was close upon him.  Presently he stood up and stretched out his left arm in front of him, groping, searching, feeling in a circle; and behind it he held the pistol, cocked and pointed, in his right hand.  As he rose a bone cracked in his knee, his clothes rustled as if they were newspapers, and his breath seemed loud enough to be heard all over the room.  But not a sound came to betray the position of the invisible intruder.

Then, just when the tension was becoming unbearable, a noise relieved the gripping silence.  It was wood knocking against wood, and it came from the farther end of the room.  The steps had moved over to the fireplace.  A sliding sound almost immediately followed it and then silence closed again over everything like a pall.

For another five minutes Shorthouse waited, and then the suspense became too much.  He could not stand that open door!  The candles were close beside him and he struck a match and lit them, expecting in the sudden glare to receive at least a terrific blow.  But nothing happened, and he saw at once that the room was entirely empty.  Walking over with the pistol cocked he peered out into the darkness of the landing and then closed the door and turned the key.  Then he searched the room ­bed, cupboard, table, curtains, everything that could have concealed a man; but found no trace of the intruder.  The owner of the footsteps had disappeared like a ghost into the shadows of the night.  But for one fact he might have imagined that he had been dreaming:  the bag had vanished!

There was no more sleep for Shorthouse that night.  His watch pointed to 4 a.m. and there were still three hours before daylight.  He sat down at the table and continued his sketches.  With fixed determination he went on with his drawing and began a new outline of the man’s head.  There was something in the expression that continually evaded him.  He had no success with it, and this time it seemed to him that it was the eyes that brought about his discomfiture.  He held up his pencil before his face to measure the distance between the nose and the eyes, and to his amazement he saw that a change had come over the features.  The eyes were no longer open. The lids had closed!

For a second he stood in a sort of stupefied astonishment.  A push would have toppled him over.  Then he sprang to his feet and held a candle close up to the picture.  The eye-lids quivered, the eye-lashes trembled.  Then, right before his gaze, the eyes opened and looked straight into his own.  Two holes were cut in the panel and this pair of eyes, human eyes, just fitted them.

As by a curious effect of magic, the strong fear that had governed him ever since his entry into the house disappeared in a second.  Anger rushed into his heart and his chilled blood rose suddenly to boiling point.  Putting the candle down, he took two steps back into the room and then flung himself forward with all his strength against the painted panel.  Instantly, and before the crash came, the eyes were withdrawn, and two black spaces showed where they had been.  The old huntsman was eyeless.  But the panel cracked and split inwards like a sheet of thin cardboard; and Shorthouse, pistol in hand, thrust an arm through the jagged aperture and, seizing a human leg, dragged out into the room ­the Jew!

Words rushed in such a torrent to his lips that they choked him.  The old Hebrew, white as chalk, stood shaking before him, the bright pistol barrel opposite his eyes, when a volume of cold air rushed into the room, and with it a sound of hurried steps.  Shorthouse felt his arm knocked up before he had time to turn, and the same second Garvey, who had somehow managed to burst open the window came between him and the trembling Marx.  His lips were parted and his eyes rolled strangely in his distorted face.

“Don’t shoot him!  Shoot in the air!” he shrieked.  He seized the Jew by the shoulders.

“You damned hound,” he roared, hissing in his face.  “So I’ve got you at last.  That’s where your vacuum is, is it?  I know your vile hiding-place at last.”  He shook him like a dog.  “I’ve been after him all night,” he cried, turning to Shorthouse, “all night, I tell you, and I’ve got him at last.”

Garvey lifted his upper lip as he spoke and showed his teeth.  They shone like the fangs of a wolf.  The Jew evidently saw them too, for he gave a horrid yell and struggled furiously.

Before the eyes of the secretary a mist seemed to rise.  The hideous shadow again leaped into Garvey’s face.  He foresaw a dreadful battle, and covering the two men with his pistol he retreated slowly to the door.  Whether they were both mad, or both criminal, he did not pause to inquire.  The only thought present in his mind was that the sooner he made his escape the better.

Garvey was still shaking the Jew when he reached the door and turned the key, but as he passed out on to the landing both men stopped their struggling and turned to face him.  Garvey’s face, bestial, loathsome, livid with anger; the Jew’s white and grey with fear and horror; ­both turned towards him and joined in a wild, horrible yell that woke the echoes of the night.  The next second they were after him at full speed.

Shorthouse slammed the door in their faces and was at the foot of the stairs, crouching in the shadow, before they were out upon the landing.  They tore shrieking down the stairs and past him, into the hall; and, wholly unnoticed, Shorthouse whipped up the stairs again, crossed the bedroom and dropped from the balcony into the soft snow.

As he ran down the drive he heard behind him in the house the yells of the maniacs; and when he reached home several hours later Mr. Sidebotham not only raised his salary but also told him to buy a new hat and overcoat, and send in the bill to him.