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A Dead Finger






I

Why the National Gallery should not attract so many visitors as, say,
the British Museum, I cannot explain. The latter does not contain much
that, one would suppose, appeals to the interest of the ordinary
sightseer. What knows such of prehistoric flints and scratched bones? Of
Assyrian sculpture? Of Egyptian hieroglyphics? The Greek and Roman
statuary is cold and dead. The paintings in the National Gallery glow
with colour, and are instinct with life. Yet, somehow, a few listless
wanderers saunter yawning through the National Gallery, whereas swarms
pour through the halls of the British Museum, and talk and pass remarks
about the objects there exposed, of the date and meaning of which they
have not the faintest conception.

I was thinking of this problem, and endeavouring to unravel it, one
morning whilst sitting in the room for English masters at the great
collection in Trafalgar Square. At the same time another thought forced
itself upon me. I had been through the rooms devoted to foreign schools,
and had then come into that given over to Reynolds, Morland,
Gainsborough, Constable, and Hogarth. The morning had been for a while
propitious, but towards noon a dense umber-tinted fog had come on,
making it all but impossible to see the pictures, and quite impossible
to do them justice. I was tired, and so seated myself on one of the
chairs, and fell into the consideration first of all of--why the
National Gallery is not as popular as it should be; and secondly, how it
was that the British School had no beginnings, like those of Italy and
the Netherlands. We can see the art of the painter from its first
initiation in the Italian peninsula, and among the Flemings. It starts
on its progress like a child, and we can trace every stage of its
growth. Not so with English art. It springs to life in full and splendid
maturity. Who were there before Reynolds and Gainsborough and Hogarth?
The great names of those portrait and subject painters who have left
their canvases upon the walls of our country houses were those of
foreigners--Holbein, Kneller, Van Dyck, and Lely for portraits, and
Monnoyer for flower and fruit pieces. Landscapes, figure subjects were
all importations, none home-grown. How came that about? Was there no
limner that was native? Was it that fashion trampled on home-grown
pictorial beginnings as it flouted and spurned native music?

Here was food for contemplation. Dreaming in the brown fog, looking
through it without seeing its beauties, at Hogarth's painting of Lavinia
Fenton as Polly Peachum, without wondering how so indifferent a beauty
could have captivated the Duke of Bolton and held him for thirty years,
I was recalled to myself and my surroundings by the strange conduct of a
lady who had seated herself on a chair near me, also discouraged by the
fog, and awaiting its dispersion.

I had not noticed her particularly. At the present moment I do not
remember particularly what she was like. So far as I can recollect she
was middle-aged, and was quietly yet well dressed. It was not her face
nor her dress that attracted my attention and disturbed the current of
my thoughts; the effect I speak of was produced by her strange movements
and behaviour.

She had been sitting listless, probably thinking of nothing at all, or
nothing in particular, when, in turning her eyes round, and finding
that she could see nothing of the paintings, she began to study me. This
did concern me greatly. A cat may look at the king; but to be
contemplated by a lady is a compliment sufficient to please any
gentleman. It was not gratified vanity that troubled my thoughts, but
the consciousness that my appearance produced--first of all a startled
surprise, then undisguised alarm, and, finally, indescribable horror.

Now a man can sit quietly leaning on the head of his umbrella, and glow
internally, warmed and illumined by the consciousness that he is being
surveyed with admiration by a lovely woman, even when he is middle-aged
and not fashionably dressed; but no man can maintain his composure when
he discovers himself to be an object of aversion and terror.

What was it? I passed my hand over my chin and upper lip, thinking it
not impossible that I might have forgotten to shave that morning, and in
my confusion not considering that the fog would prevent the lady from
discovering neglect in this particular, had it occurred, which it had
not. I am a little careless, perhaps, about shaving when in the country;
but when in town, never.

The next idea that occurred to me was--a smut. Had a London black,
curdled in that dense pea-soup atmosphere, descended on my nose and
blackened it? I hastily drew my silk handkerchief from my pocket,
moistened it, and passed it over my nose, and then each cheek. I then
turned my eyes into the corners and looked at the lady, to see whether
by this means I had got rid of what was objectionable in my personal
appearance.

Then I saw that her eyes, dilated with horror, were riveted, not on my
face, but on my leg.

My leg! What on earth could that harmless member have in it so
terrifying? The morning had been dull; there had been rain in the night,
and I admit that on leaving my hotel I had turned up the bottoms of my
trousers. That is a proceeding not so uncommon, not so outrageous as to
account for the stony stare of this woman's eyes.

If that were all I would turn my trousers down.

Then I saw her shrink from the chair on which she sat to one further
removed from me, but still with her eyes fixed on my leg--about the
level of my knee. She had let fall her umbrella, and was grasping the
seat of her chair with both hands, as she backed from me.

I need hardly say that I was greatly disturbed in mind and feelings, and
forgot all about the origin of the English schools of painters, and the
question why the British Museum is more popular than the National
Gallery.

Thinking that I might have been spattered by a hansom whilst crossing
Oxford Street, I passed my hand down my side hastily, with a sense of
annoyance, and all at once touched something cold, clammy, that sent a
thrill to my heart, and made me start and take a step forward. At the
same moment, the lady, with a cry of horror, sprang to her feet, and
with raised hands fled from the room, leaving her umbrella where it had
fallen.

There were other visitors to the Picture Gallery besides ourselves, who
had been passing through the saloon, and they turned at her cry, and
looked in surprise after her.

The policeman stationed in the room came to me and asked what had
happened. I was in such agitation that I hardly knew what to answer. I
told him that I could explain what had occurred little better than
himself. I had noticed that the lady had worn an odd expression, and had
behaved in most extraordinary fashion, and that he had best take charge
of her umbrella, and wait for her return to claim it.

This questioning by the official was vexing, as it prevented me from at
once and on the spot investigating the cause of her alarm and mine--hers
at something she must have seen on my leg, and mine at something I had
distinctly felt creeping up my leg.

The numbing and sickening effect on me of the touch of the object I had
not seen was not to be shaken off at once. Indeed, I felt as though my
hand were contaminated, and that I could have no rest till I had
thoroughly washed the hand, and, if possible, washed away the feeling
that had been produced.

I looked on the floor, I examined my leg, but saw nothing. As I wore my
overcoat, it was probable that in rising from my seat the skirt had
fallen over my trousers and hidden the thing, whatever it was. I
therefore hastily removed my overcoat and shook it, then I looked at my
trousers. There was nothing whatever on my leg, and nothing fell from my
overcoat when shaken.

Accordingly I reinvested myself, and hastily left the Gallery; then took
my way as speedily as I could, without actually running, to Charing
Cross Station and down the narrow way leading to the Metropolitan, where
I went into Faulkner's bath and hairdressing establishment, and asked
for hot water to thoroughly wash my hand and well soap it. I bathed my
hand in water as hot as I could endure it, employed carbolic soap, and
then, after having a good brush down, especially on my left side where
my hand had encountered the object that had so affected me, I left. I
had entertained the intention of going to the Princess's Theatre that
evening, and of securing a ticket in the morning; but all thought of
theatre-going was gone from me. I could not free my heart from the sense
of nausea and cold that had been produced by the touch. I went into
Gatti's to have lunch, and ordered something, I forget what, but, when
served, I found that my appetite was gone. I could eat nothing; the food
inspired me with disgust. I thrust it from me untasted, and, after
drinking a couple of glasses of claret, left the restaurant, and
returned to my hotel.

Feeling sick and faint, I threw my overcoat over the sofa-back, and cast
myself on my bed.

I do not know that there was any particular reason for my doing so, but
as I lay my eyes were on my great-coat.

The density of the fog had passed away, and there was light again, not
of first quality, but sufficient for a Londoner to swear by, so that I
could see everything in my room, though through a veil, darkly.

I do not think my mind was occupied in any way. About the only occasions
on which, to my knowledge, my mind is actually passive or inert is when
crossing the Channel in The Foam from Dover to Calais, when I am
always, in every weather, abjectly seasick--and thoughtless. But as I
now lay on my bed, uncomfortable, squeamish, without knowing why--I was
in the same inactive mental condition. But not for long.

I saw something that startled me.

First, it appeared to me as if the lappet of my overcoat pocket were in
movement, being raised. I did not pay much attention to this, as I
supposed that the garment was sliding down on to the seat of the sofa,
from the back, and that this displacement of gravity caused the movement
I observed. But this I soon saw was not the case. That which moved the
lappet was something in the pocket that was struggling to get out. I
could see now that it was working its way up the inside, and that when
it reached the opening it lost balance and fell down again. I could make
this out by the projections and indentations in the cloth; these moved
as the creature, or whatever it was, worked its way up the lining.

"A mouse," I said, and forgot my seediness; I was interested. "The
little rascal! However did he contrive to seat himself in my pocket? and
I have worn that overcoat all the morning!" But no--it was not a mouse.
I saw something white poke its way out from under the lappet; and in
another moment an object was revealed that, though revealed, I could not
understand, nor could I distinguish what it was.

Now roused by curiosity, I raised myself on my elbow. In doing this I
made some noise, the bed creaked. Instantly the something dropped on the
floor, lay outstretched for a moment, to recover itself, and then began,
with the motions of a maggot, to run along the floor.

There is a caterpillar called "The Measurer," because, when it advances,
it draws its tail up to where its head is and then throws forward its
full length, and again draws up its extremity, forming at each time a
loop; and with each step measuring its total length. The object I now
saw on the floor was advancing precisely like the measuring caterpillar.
It had the colour of a cheese-maggot, and in length was about three and
a half inches. It was not, however, like a caterpillar, which is
flexible throughout its entire length, but this was, as it seemed to me,
jointed in two places, one joint being more conspicuous than the other.
For some moments I was so completely paralysed by astonishment that I
remained motionless, looking at the thing as it crawled along the
carpet--a dull green carpet with darker green, almost black, flowers in
it.

It had, as it seemed to me, a glossy head, distinctly marked; but, as
the light was not brilliant, I could not make out very clearly, and,
moreover, the rapid movements prevented close scrutiny.

Presently, with a shock still more startling than that produced by its
apparition at the opening of the pocket of my great-coat, I became
convinced that what I saw was a finger, a human forefinger, and that the
glossy head was no other than the nail.

The finger did not seem to have been amputated. There was no sign of
blood or laceration where the knuckle should be, but the extremity of
the finger, or root rather, faded away to indistinctness, and I was
unable to make out the root of the finger.

I could see no hand, no body behind this finger, nothing whatever except
a finger that had little token of warm life in it, no coloration as
though blood circulated in it; and this finger was in active motion
creeping along the carpet towards a wardrobe that stood against the wall
by the fireplace.

I sprang off the bed and pursued it.

Evidently the finger was alarmed, for it redoubled its pace, reached the
wardrobe, and went under it. By the time I had arrived at the article of
furniture it had disappeared. I lit a vesta match and held it beneath
the wardrobe, that was raised above the carpet by about two inches, on
turned feet, but I could see nothing more of the finger.

I got my umbrella and thrust it beneath, and raked forwards and
backwards, right and left, and raked out flue, and nothing more solid.


II

I packed my portmanteau next day and returned to my home in the country.
All desire for amusement in town was gone, and the faculty to transact
business had departed as well.

A languor and qualms had come over me, and my head was in a maze. I was
unable to fix my thoughts on anything. At times I was disposed to
believe that my wits were deserting me, at others that I was on the
verge of a severe illness. Anyhow, whether likely to go off my head or
not, or take to my bed, home was the only place for me, and homeward I
sped, accordingly. On reaching my country habitation, my servant, as
usual, took my portmanteau to my bedroom, unstrapped it, but did not
unpack it. I object to his throwing out the contents of my Gladstone
bag; not that there is anything in it he may not see, but that he puts
my things where I cannot find them again. My clothes--he is welcome to
place them where he likes and where they belong, and this latter he
knows better than I do; but, then, I carry about with me other things
than a dress suit, and changes of linen and flannel. There are letters,
papers, books--and the proper destinations of these are known only to
myself. A servant has a singular and evil knack of putting away literary
matter and odd volumes in such places that it takes the owner half a day
to find them again. Although I was uncomfortable, and my head in a
whirl, I opened and unpacked my own portmanteau. As I was thus engaged I
saw something curled up in my collar-box, the lid of which had got
broken in by a boot-heel impinging on it. I had pulled off the damaged
cover to see if my collars had been spoiled, when something curled up
inside suddenly rose on end and leapt, just like a cheese-jumper, out of
the box, over the edge of the Gladstone bag, and scurried away across
the floor in a manner already familiar to me.

I could not doubt for a moment what it was--here was the finger again.
It had come with me from London to the country.

Whither it went in its run over the floor I do not know, I was too
bewildered to observe.

Somewhat later, towards evening, I seated myself in my easy-chair, took
up a book, and tried to read. I was tired with the journey, with the
knocking about in town, and the discomfort and alarm produced by the
apparition of the finger. I felt worn out. I was unable to give my
attention to what I read, and before I was aware was asleep. Roused for
an instant by the fall of the book from my hands, I speedily relapsed
into unconsciousness. I am not sure that a doze in an armchair ever does
good. It usually leaves me in a semi-stupid condition and with a
headache. Five minutes in a horizontal position on my bed is worth
thirty in a chair. That is my experience. In sleeping in a sedentary
position the head is a difficulty; it drops forward or lolls on one side
or the other, and has to be brought back into a position in which the
line to the centre of gravity runs through the trunk, otherwise the head
carries the body over in a sort of general capsize out of the chair on
to the floor.

I slept, on the occasion of which I am speaking, pretty healthily,
because deadly weary; but I was brought to waking, not by my head
falling over the arm of the chair, and my trunk tumbling after it, but
by a feeling of cold extending from my throat to my heart. When I awoke
I was in a diagonal position, with my right ear resting on my right
shoulder, and exposing the left side of my throat, and it was
here--where the jugular vein throbs--that I felt the greatest intensity
of cold. At once I shrugged my left shoulder, rubbing my neck with the
collar of my coat in so doing. Immediately something fell off, upon the
floor, and I again saw the finger.

My disgust--horror, were intensified when I perceived that it was
dragging something after it, which might have been an old stocking, and
which I took at first glance for something of the sort.

The evening sun shone in through my window, in a brilliant golden ray
that lighted the object as it scrambled along. With this illumination I
was able to distinguish what the object was. It is not easy to describe
it, but I will make the attempt.

The finger I saw was solid and material; what it drew after it was
neither, or was in a nebulous, protoplasmic condition. The finger was
attached to a hand that was curdling into matter and in process of
acquiring solidity; attached to the hand was an arm in a very filmy
condition, and this arm belonged to a human body in a still more
vaporous, immaterial condition. This was being dragged along the floor
by the finger, just as a silkworm might pull after it the tangle of its
web. I could see legs and arms, and head, and coat-tail tumbling about
and interlacing and disentangling again in a promiscuous manner. There
were no bone, no muscle, no substance in the figure; the members were
attached to the trunk, which was spineless, but they had evidently no
functions, and were wholly dependent on the finger which pulled them
along in a jumble of parts as it advanced.

In such confusion did the whole vaporous matter seem, that I think--I
cannot say for certain it was so, but the impression left on my mind
was--that one of the eyeballs was looking out at a nostril, and the
tongue lolling out of one of the ears.

It was, however, only for a moment that I saw this germ-body; I cannot
call by another name that which had not more substance than smoke. I saw
it only so long as it was being dragged athwart the ray of sunlight. The
moment it was pulled jerkily out of the beam into the shadow beyond, I
could see nothing of it, only the crawling finger.

I had not sufficient moral energy or physical force in me to rise,
pursue, and stamp on the finger, and grind it with my heel into the
floor. Both seemed drained out of me. What became of the finger, whither
it went, how it managed to secrete itself, I do not know. I had lost the
power to inquire. I sat in my chair, chilled, staring before me into
space.

"Please, sir," a voice said, "there's Mr. Square below, electrical
engineer."

"Eh?" I looked dreamily round.

My valet was at the door.

"Please, sir, the gentleman would be glad to be allowed to go over the
house and see that all the electrical apparatus is in order."

"Oh, indeed! Yes--show him up."


III

I had recently placed the lighting of my house in the hands of an
electrical engineer, a very intelligent man, Mr. Square, for whom I had
contracted a sincere friendship.

He had built a shed with a dynamo out of sight, and had entrusted the
laying of the wires to subordinates, as he had been busy with other
orders and could not personally watch every detail. But he was not the
man to let anything pass unobserved, and he knew that electricity was
not a force to be played with. Bad or careless workmen will often
insufficiently protect the wires, or neglect the insertion of the lead
which serves as a safety-valve in the event of the current being too
strong. Houses may be set on fire, human beings fatally shocked, by the
neglect of a bad or slovenly workman.

The apparatus for my mansion was but just completed, and Mr. Square had
come to inspect it and make sure that all was right.

He was an enthusiast in the matter of electricity, and saw for it a vast
perspective, the limits of which could not be predicted.

"All forces," said he, "are correlated. When you have force in one form,
you may just turn it into this or that, as you like. In one form it is
motive power, in another it is light, in another heat. Now we have
electricity for illumination. We employ it, but not as freely as in the
States, for propelling vehicles. Why should we have horses drawing our
buses? We should use only electric trams. Why do we burn coal to warm
our shins? There is electricity, which throws out no filthy smoke as
does coal. Why should we let the tides waste their energies in the
Thames? in other estuaries? There we have Nature supplying us--free,
gratis, and for nothing--with all the force we want for propelling, for
heating, for lighting. I will tell you something more, my dear sir,"
said Mr. Square. "I have mentioned but three modes of force, and have
instanced but a limited number of uses to which electricity may be
turned. How is it with photography? Is not electric light becoming an
artistic agent? I bet you," said he, "before long it will become a
therapeutic agent as well."

"Oh, yes; I have heard of certain impostors with their life-belts."

Mr. Square did not relish this little dig I gave him. He winced, but
returned to the charge. "We don't know how to direct it aright, that is
all," said he. "I haven't taken the matter up, but others will, I bet;
and we shall have electricity used as freely as now we use powders and
pills. I don't believe in doctors' stuffs myself. I hold that disease
lays hold of a man because he lacks physical force to resist it. Now, is
it not obvious that you are beginning at the wrong end when you attack
the disease? What you want is to supply force, make up for the lack of
physical power, and force is force wherever you find it--here motive,
there illuminating, and so on. I don't see why a physician should not
utilise the tide rushing out under London Bridge for restoring the
feeble vigour of all who are languid and a prey to disorder in the
Metropolis. It will come to that, I bet, and that is not all. Force is
force, everywhere. Political, moral force, physical force, dynamic
force, heat, light, tidal waves, and so on--all are one, all is one. In
time we shall know how to galvanise into aptitude and moral energy all
the limp and crooked consciences and wills that need taking in hand, and
such there always will be in modern civilisation. I don't know how to do
it. I don't know how it will be done, but in the future the priest as
well as the doctor will turn electricity on as his principal, nay, his
only agent. And he can get his force anywhere, out of the running
stream, out of the wind, out of the tidal wave.

"I'll give you an instance," continued Mr. Square, chuckling and rubbing
his hands, "to show you the great possibilities in electricity, used in
a crude fashion. In a certain great city away far west in the States, a
go-ahead place, too, more so than New York, they had electric trams all
up and down and along the roads to everywhere. The union men working for
the company demanded that the non-unionists should be turned off. But
the company didn't see it. Instead, it turned off the union men. It had
up its sleeve a sufficiency of the others, and filled all places at
once. Union men didn't like it, and passed word that at a given hour on
a certain day every wire was to be cut. The company knew this by means
of its spies, and turned on, ready for them, three times the power into
all the wires. At the fixed moment, up the poles went the strikers to
cut the cables, and down they came a dozen times quicker than they went
up, I bet. Then there came wires to the hospitals from all quarters for
stretchers to carry off the disabled men, some with broken legs, arms,
ribs; two or three had their necks broken. I reckon the company was
wonderfully merciful--it didn't put on sufficient force to make cinders
of them then and there; possibly opinion might not have liked it.
Stopped the strike, did that. Great moral effect--all done by
electricity."

In this manner Mr. Square was wont to rattle on. He interested me, and I
came to think that there might be something in what he said--that his
suggestions were not mere nonsense. I was glad to see Mr. Square enter
my room, shown in by my man. I did not rise from my chair to shake his
hand, for I had not sufficient energy to do so. In a languid tone I
welcomed him and signed to him to take a seat. Mr. Square looked at me
with some surprise.

"Why, what's the matter?" he said. "You seem unwell. Not got the 'flue,
have you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"The influenza. Every third person is crying out that he has it, and the
sale of eucalyptus is enormous, not that eucalyptus is any good.
Influenza microbes indeed! What care they for eucalyptus? You've gone
down some steps of the ladder of life since I saw you last, squire. How
do you account for that?"

I hesitated about mentioning the extraordinary circumstances that had
occurred; but Square was a man who would not allow any beating about the
bush. He was downright and straight, and in ten minutes had got the
entire story out of me.

"Rather boisterous for your nerves that--a crawling finger," said he.
"It's a queer story taken on end."

Then he was silent, considering.

After a few minutes he rose, and said: "I'll go and look at the
fittings, and then I'll turn this little matter of yours over again, and
see if I can't knock the bottom out of it, I'm kinder fond of these sort
of things."

Mr. Square was not a Yankee, but he had lived for some time in America,
and affected to speak like an American. He used expressions, terms of
speech common in the States, but had none of the Transatlantic twang. He
was a man absolutely without affectation in every other particular; this
was his sole weakness, and it was harmless.

The man was so thorough in all he did that I did not expect his return
immediately. He was certain to examine every portion of the dynamo
engine, and all the connections and burners. This would necessarily
engage him for some hours. As the day was nearly done, I knew he could
not accomplish what he wanted that evening, and accordingly gave orders
that a room should be prepared for him. Then, as my head was full of
pain, and my skin was burning, I told my servant to apologise for my
absence from dinner, and tell Mr. Square that I was really forced to
return to my bed by sickness, and that I believed I was about to be
prostrated by an attack of influenza.

The valet--a worthy fellow, who has been with me for six years--was
concerned at my appearance, and urged me to allow him to send for a
doctor. I had no confidence in the local practitioner, and if I sent for
another from the nearest town I should offend him, and a row would
perhaps ensue, so I declined. If I were really in for an influenza
attack, I knew about as much as any doctor how to deal with it. Quinine,
quinine--that was all. I bade my man light a small lamp, lower it, so as
to give sufficient illumination to enable me to find some lime-juice at
my bed head, and my pocket-handkerchief, and to be able to read my
watch. When he had done this, I bade him leave me.

I lay in bed, burning, racked with pain in my head, and with my eyeballs
on fire.

Whether I fell asleep or went off my head for a while I cannot tell. I
may have fainted. I have no recollection of anything after having gone
to bed and taken a sip of lime-juice that tasted to me like soap--till I
was roused by a sense of pain in my ribs--a slow, gnawing, torturing
pain, waxing momentarily more intense. In half-consciousness I was
partly dreaming and partly aware of actual suffering. The pain was real;
but in my fancy I thought that a great maggot was working its way into
my side between my ribs. I seemed to see it. It twisted itself half
round, then reverted to its former position, and again twisted itself,
moving like a bradawl, not like a gimlet, which latter forms a complete
revolution.

This, obviously, must have been a dream, hallucination only, as I was
lying on my back and my eyes were directed towards the bottom of the
bed, and the coverlet and blankets and sheet intervened between my eyes
and my side. But in fever one sees without eyes, and in every direction,
and through all obstructions.

Roused thoroughly by an excruciating twinge, I tried to cry out, and
succeeded in throwing myself over on my right side, that which was in
pain. At once I felt the thing withdrawn that was awling--if I may use
the word--in between my ribs.

And now I saw, standing beside the bed, a figure that had its arm under
the bedclothes, and was slowly removing it. The hand was leisurely
drawn from under the coverings and rested on the eider-down coverlet,
with the forefinger extended.

The figure was that of a man, in shabby clothes, with a sallow, mean
face, a retreating forehead, with hair cut after the French fashion, and
a moustache, dark. The jaws and chin were covered with a bristly growth,
as if shaving had been neglected for a fortnight. The figure did not
appear to be thoroughly solid, but to be of the consistency of curd, and
the face was of the complexion of curd. As I looked at this object it
withdrew, sliding backward in an odd sort of manner, and as though
overweighted by the hand, which was the most substantial, indeed the
only substantial portion of it. Though the figure retreated stooping,
yet it was no longer huddled along by the finger, as if it had no
material existence. If the same, it had acquired a consistency and a
solidity which it did not possess before.

How it vanished I do not know, nor whither it went. The door opened, and
Square came in.

"What!" he exclaimed with cheery voice; "influenza is it?"

"I don't know--I think it's that finger again."


IV

"Now, look here," said Square, "I'm not going to have that cuss at its
pranks any more. Tell me all about it."

I was now so exhausted, so feeble, that I was not able to give a
connected account of what had taken place, but Square put to me just a
few pointed questions and elicited the main facts. He pieced them
together in his own orderly mind, so as to form a connected whole.
"There is a feature in the case," said he, "that strikes me as
remarkable and important. At first--a finger only, then a hand, then a
nebulous figure attached to the hand, without backbone, without
consistency. Lastly, a complete form, with consistency and with
backbone, but the latter in a gelatinous condition, and the entire
figure overweighted by the hand, just as hand and figure were previously
overweighted by the finger. Simultaneously with this compacting and
consolidating of the figure, came your degeneration and loss of vital
force and, in a word, of health. What you lose, that object acquires,
and what it acquires, it gains by contact with you. That's clear enough,
is it not?"

"I dare say. I don't know. I can't think."

"I suppose not; the faculty of thought is drained out of you. Very well,
I must think for you, and I will. Force is force, and see if I can't
deal with your visitant in such a way as will prove just as truly a
moral dissuasive as that employed on the union men on strike in--never
mind where it was. That's not to the point."

"Will you kindly give me some lime-juice?" I entreated.

I sipped the acid draught, but without relief. I listened to Square, but
without hope. I wanted to be left alone. I was weary of my pain, weary
of everything, even of life. It was a matter of indifference to me
whether I recovered or slipped out of existence.

"It will be here again shortly," said the engineer. "As the French say,
l'appetit vient en mangeant. It has been at you thrice, it won't be
content without another peck. And if it does get another, I guess it
will pretty well about finish you."

Mr. Square rubbed his chin, and then put his hands into his trouser
pockets. That also was a trick acquired in the States, an inelegant one.
His hands, when not actively occupied, went into his pockets, inevitably
they gravitated thither. Ladies did not like Square; they said he was
not a gentleman. But it was not that he said or did anything "off
colour," only he spoke to them, looked at them, walked with them, always
with his hands in his pockets. I have seen a lady turn her back on him
deliberately because of this trick.

Standing now with his hands in his pockets, he studied my bed, and said
contemptuously: "Old-fashioned and bad, fourposter. Oughtn't to be
allowed, I guess; unwholesome all the way round."

I was not in a condition to dispute this. I like a fourposter with
curtains at head and feet; not that I ever draw them, but it gives a
sense of privacy that is wanting in one of your half-tester beds.

If there is a window at one's feet, one can lie in bed without the glare
in one's eyes, and yet without darkening the room by drawing the blinds.
There is much to be said for a fourposter, but this is not the place in
which to say it.

Mr. Square pulled his hands out of his pockets and began fiddling with
the electric point near the head of my bed, attached a wire, swept it in
a semicircle along the floor, and then thrust the knob at the end into
my hand in the bed.

"Keep your eye open," said he, "and your hand shut and covered. If that
finger comes again tickling your ribs, try it with the point. I'll
manage the switch, from behind the curtain."

Then he disappeared.

I was too indifferent in my misery to turn my head and observe where he
was. I remained inert, with the knob in my hand, and my eyes closed,
suffering and thinking of nothing but the shooting pains through my head
and the aches in my loins and back and legs.

Some time probably elapsed before I felt the finger again at work at my
ribs; it groped, but no longer bored. I now felt the entire hand, not a
single finger, and the hand was substantial, cold, and clammy. I was
aware, how, I know not, that if the finger-point reached the region of
my heart, on the left side, the hand would, so to speak, sit down on it,
with the cold palm over it, and that then immediately my heart would
cease to beat, and it would be, as Square might express it, "gone coon"
with me.

In self-preservation I brought up the knob of the electric wire against
the hand--against one of the ringers, I think--and at once was aware of
a rapping, squealing noise. I turned my head languidly, and saw the
form, now more substantial than before, capering in an ecstasy of pain,
endeavouring fruitlessly to withdraw its arm from under the bedclothes,
and the hand from the electric point.

At the same moment Square stepped from behind the curtain, with a dry
laugh, and said: "I thought we should fix him. He has the coil about
him, and can't escape. Now let us drop to particulars. But I shan't let
you off till I know all about you."

The last sentence was addressed, not to me, but to the apparition.

Thereupon he bade me take the point away from the hand of the
figure--being--whatever it was, but to be ready with it at a moment's
notice. He then proceeded to catechise my visitor, who moved restlessly
within the circle of wire, but could not escape from it. It replied in a
thin, squealing voice that sounded as if it came from a distance, and
had a querulous tone in it. I do not pretend to give all that was said.
I cannot recollect everything that passed. My memory was affected by my
illness, as well as my body. Yet I prefer giving the scraps that I
recollect to what Square told me he had heard.

"Yes--I was unsuccessful, always was. Nothing answered with me. The
world was against me. Society was. I hate Society. I don't like work
neither, never did. But I like agitating against what is established. I
hate the Royal Family, the landed interest, the parsons, everything that
is, except the people--that is, the unemployed. I always did. I couldn't
get work as suited me. When I died they buried me in a cheap coffin,
dirt cheap, and gave me a nasty grave, cheap, and a service rattled
away cheap, and no monument. Didn't want none. Oh! there are lots of
us. All discontented. Discontent! That's a passion, it is--it gets into
the veins, it fills the brain, it occupies the heart; it's a sort of
divine cancer that takes possession of the entire man, and makes him
dissatisfied with everything, and hate everybody. But we must have our
share of happiness at some time. We all crave for it in one way or
other. Some think there's a future state of blessedness and so have
hope, and look to attain to it, for hope is a cable and anchor that
attaches to what is real. But when you have no hope of that sort, don't
believe in any future state, you must look for happiness in life here.
We didn't get it when we were alive, so we seek to procure it after we
are dead. We can do it, if we can get out of our cheap and nasty
coffins. But not till the greater part of us is mouldered away. If a
finger or two remains, that can work its way up to the surface, those
cheap deal coffins go to pieces quick enough. Then the only solid part
of us left can pull the rest of us that has gone to nothing after it.
Then we grope about after the living. The well-to-do if we can get at
them--the honest working poor if we can't--we hate them too, because
they are content and happy. If we reach any of these, and can touch
them, then we can draw their vital force out of them into ourselves, and
recuperate at their expense. That was about what I was going to do with
you. Getting on famous. Nearly solidified into a new man; and given
another chance in life. But I've missed it this time. Just like my luck.
Miss everything. Always have, except misery and disappointment. Get
plenty of that."

"What are you all?" asked Square. "Anarchists out of employ?"

"Some of us go by that name, some by other designations, but we are all
one, and own allegiance to but one monarch--Sovereign discontent. We are
bred to have a distaste for manual work; and we grow up loafers,
grumbling at everything and quarrelling with Society that is around us
and the Providence that is above us."

"And what do you call yourselves now?"

"Call ourselves? Nothing; we are the same, in another condition, that is
all. Folk called us once Anarchists, Nihilists, Socialists, Levellers,
now they call us the Influenza. The learned talk of microbes, and
bacilli, and bacteria. Microbes, bacilli, and bacteria be blowed! We are
the Influenza; we the social failures, the generally discontented,
coming up out of our cheap and nasty graves in the form of physical
disease. We are the Influenza."

"There you are, I guess!" exclaimed Square triumphantly. "Did I not say
that all forces were correlated? If so, then all negations, deficiencies
of force are one in their several manifestations. Talk of Divine
discontent as a force impelling to progress! Rubbish, it is a paralysis
of energy. It turns all it absorbs to acid, to envy, spite, gall. It
inspires nothing, but rots the whole moral system. Here you have
it--moral, social, political discontent in another form, nay
aspect--that is all. What Anarchism is in the body Politic, that
Influenza is in the body Physical. Do you see that?"

"Ye-e-s-e-s," I believe I answered, and dropped away into the land of
dreams.

I recovered. What Square did with the Thing I know not, but believe that
he reduced it again to its former negative and self-decomposing
condition.





Next: Black Ram

Previous: Little Joe Gander



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