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Casting The Runes






_April 15th, 190-_

Dear Sir,

I am requested by the Council of the ---- Association to return to you
the draft of a paper on _The Truth of Alchemy_, which you have been good
enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you
that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.

I am,

Yours faithfully,

Secretary

April 18th

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my affording you
an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our laws allow
of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as you
suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration was
given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined
without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent
authority. No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to
add) can have had the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.

Believe me (_ut supra_).

_April 20th_

The Secretary of the ---- Association begs respectfully to inform Mr
Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any
person or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell's paper may have been
submitted; and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to
reply to any further letters on this subject.

'And who _is_ Mr Karswell?' inquired the Secretary's wife. She had called
at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of
these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.

'Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I
don't know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of
wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he's an
alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that's
about all--except that I don't want to meet him for the next week or two.
Now, if you're ready to leave this place, I am.'

'What have you been doing to make him angry?' asked Mrs Secretary.

'The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a paper
he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward
Dunning--almost the only man in England who knows about these things--and
he said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has
been pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the
name of the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that.
But don't you say anything about it, for goodness' sake.'

'I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope,
though, he won't get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.'

'Poor Mr Dunning? I don't know why you call him that; he's a very happy
man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time
to himself.'

'I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his name,
and came and bothered him.'

'Oh, ah! yes. I dare say he would be poor Mr Dunning then.'

The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose
house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had
already settled it in her own mind that she would question them
judiciously about Mr Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading
up to the subject, for the hostess said to the host, before many minutes
had passed, 'I saw the Abbot of Lufford this morning.' The host whistled.
'_Did_ you? What in the world brings him up to town?' 'Goodness knows; he
was coming out of the British Museum gate as I drove past.' It was not
unnatural that Mrs Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot
who was being spoken of. 'Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the
country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is
Karswell.' 'Is he a friend of yours?' asked Mr Secretary, with a private
wink to his wife. The question let loose a torrent of declamation. There
was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did
with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented
a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what
appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody;
he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat
demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did
exert was mischievous. 'Do the poor man justice, dear,' the husband
interrupted. 'You forget the treat he gave the school children.' 'Forget
it, indeed! But I'm glad you mentioned it, because it gives an idea of
the man. Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he was at
Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his
parish (he's not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show the
school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds,
which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather
surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be
unpleasant to the children--complaining of their trespassing, or
something of the sort; but of course he accepted, and the evening was
fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. He
said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children
were all prevented from being there: they were at a children's party at
our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr Karswell had evidently
set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out
of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he
would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild
things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr Farrer said, the wolf
was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out:
and he said Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf
howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever
heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said, were most clever; they
were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked
them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the stories kept
on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were
mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which
represented a little boy passing through his own park--Lufford, I
mean--in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place
from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued
and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a
horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about
among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr
Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered,
and what it must have meant to the children doesn't bear thinking of. Of
course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr
Karswell, and said it couldn't go on. All _he_ said was: "Oh, you think
it's time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their
beds? _Very_ well!" And then, if you please, he switched on another
slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting
creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they
were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and
this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the
children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them
were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don't suppose one of
them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the
village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame
on poor Mr Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe
the fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey. Well, now,
that's Mr Karswell: that's the Abbot of Lufford, my dear, and you can
imagine how we covet _his_ society.'

'Yes, I think he has all the possibilities of a distinguished criminal,
has Karswell,' said the host. 'I should be sorry for anyone who got into
his bad books.'

'Is he the man, or am I mixing him up with someone else?' asked the
Secretary (who for some minutes had been wearing the frown of the man who
is trying to recollect something). 'Is he the man who brought out a
_History of Witchcraft_ some time back--ten years or more?'

'That's the man; do you remember the reviews of it?'

'Certainly I do; and what's equally to the point, I knew the author of
the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John
Harrington; he was at John's in our time.'

'Oh, very well indeed, though I don't think I saw or heard anything of
him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the
inquest on him.'

'Inquest?' said one of the ladies. 'What has happened to him?'

'Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck.
But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a
mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man--not an athletic
fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever
noticed--walking home along a country road late in the evening--no tramps
about--well known and liked in the place--and he suddenly begins to run
like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree--quite a
difficult tree--growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he
comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he's found next morning
with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was
pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and
people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but
there was nothing to be made of that. That was in '89, and I believe his
brother Henry (whom I remember as well at Cambridge, but _you_ probably
don't) has been trying to get on the track of an explanation ever since.
He, of course, insists there was malice in it, but I don't know. It's
difficult to see how it could have come in.'

After a time the talk reverted to the _History of Witchcraft_. 'Did you
ever look into it?' asked the host.

'Yes, I did,' said the Secretary. 'I went so far as to read it.'

'Was it as bad as it was made out to be?'

'Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the
pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man
believed every word of what he was saying, and I'm very much mistaken if
he hadn't tried the greater part of his receipts.'

'Well, I only remember Harrington's review of it, and I must say if I'd
been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I
should never have held up my head again.'

'It hasn't had that effect in the present case. But come, it's half-past
three; I must be off.'

On the way home the Secretary's wife said, 'I do hope that horrible man
won't find out that Mr Dunning had anything to do with the rejection of
his paper.' 'I don't think there's much chance of that,' said the
Secretary. 'Dunning won't mention it himself, for these matters are
confidential, and none of us will for the same reason. Karswell won't
know his name, for Dunning hasn't published anything on the same subject
yet. The only danger is that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask
the British Museum people who was in the habit of consulting alchemical
manuscripts: I can't very well tell them not to mention Dunning, can I?
It would set them talking at once. Let's hope it won't occur to him.'

However, Mr Karswell was an astute man.
This much is in the way of prologue. On an evening rather later in the
same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where
he had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb
where he lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long
with him. There is nothing to be added by way of description of him to
what we have heard already. Let us follow him as he takes his sober
course homewards.
A train took him to within a mile or two of his house, and an electric
tram a stage farther. The line ended at a point some three hundred yards
from his front door. He had had enough of reading when he got into the
car, and indeed the light was not such as to allow him to do more than
study the advertisements on the panes of glass that faced him as he sat.
As was not unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of cars
were objects of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible
exception of the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough
and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them
afforded much scope to his imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the
corner of the car farthest from him which did not seem familiar. It was
in blue letters on a yellow ground, and all that he could read of it was
a name--John Harrington--and something like a date. It could be of no
interest to him to know more; but for all that, as the car emptied, he
was just curious enough to move along the seat until he could read it
well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for his trouble; the
advertisement was _not_ of the usual type. It ran thus: 'In memory of
John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th,
1889. Three months were allowed.'

The car stopped. Mr Dunning, still contemplating the blue letters on the
yellow ground, had to be stimulated to rise by a word from the conductor.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I was looking at that advertisement; it's
a very odd one, isn't it?' The conductor read it slowly. 'Well, my word,'
he said, 'I never see that one before. Well, that is a cure, ain't it?
Someone bin up to their jokes 'ere, I should think.' He got out a duster
and applied it, not without saliva, to the pane and then to the outside.
'No,' he said, returning, 'that ain't no transfer; seems to me as if it
was reg'lar _in_ the glass, what I mean in the substance, as you may say.
Don't you think so, sir?' Mr Dunning examined it and rubbed it with his
glove, and agreed. 'Who looks after these advertisements, and gives leave
for them to be put up? I wish you would inquire. I will just take a note
of the words.' At this moment there came a call from the driver: 'Look
alive, George, time's up.' 'All right, all right; there's something else
what's up at this end. You come and look at this 'ere glass.' 'What's
gorn with the glass?' said the driver, approaching. 'Well, and oo's
'Arrington? What's it all about?' 'I was just asking who was responsible
for putting the advertisements up in your cars, and saying it would be as
well to make some inquiry about this one.' 'Well, sir, that's all done at
the Company's office, that work is: it's our Mr Timms, I believe, looks
into that. When we put up tonight I'll leave word, and per'aps I'll be
able to tell you tomorrer if you 'appen to be coming this way.'

This was all that passed that evening. Mr Dunning did just go to the
trouble of looking up Ashbrooke, and found that it was in Warwickshire.

Next day he went to town again. The car (it was the same car) was too
full in the morning to allow of his getting a word with the conductor: he
could only be sure that the curious advertisement had been made away
with. The close of the day brought a further element of mystery into the
transaction. He had missed the tram, or else preferred walking home, but
at a rather late hour, while he was at work in his study, one of the
maids came to say that two men from the tramways was very anxious to
speak to him. This was a reminder of the advertisement, which he had, he
says, nearly forgotten. He had the men in--they were the conductor and
driver of the car--and when the matter of refreshment had been attended
to, asked what Mr Timms had had to say about the advertisement. 'Well,
sir, that's what we took the liberty to step round about,' said the
conductor. 'Mr Timms 'e give William 'ere the rough side of his tongue
about that: 'cordin' to 'im there warn't no advertisement of that
description sent in, nor ordered, nor paid for, nor put up, nor nothink,
let alone not bein' there, and we was playing the fool takin' up his
time. "Well," I says, "if that's the case, all I ask of you, Mr Timms," I
says, "is to take and look at it for yourself," I says. "Of course if it
ain't there," I says, "you may take and call me what you like." "Right,"
he says, "I will": and we went straight off. Now, I leave it to you, sir,
if that ad., as we term 'em, with 'Arrington on it warn't as plain as
ever you see anythink--blue letters on yeller glass, and as I says at the
time, and you borne me out, reg'lar _in_ the glass, because, if you
remember, you recollect of me swabbing it with my duster.' 'To be sure I
do, quite clearly--well?' 'You may say well, I don't think. Mr Timms he
gets in that car with a light--no, he telled William to 'old the light
outside. "Now," he says, "where's your precious ad. what we've 'eard so
much about?" "'Ere it is," I says, "Mr Timms," and I laid my 'and on it.'
The conductor paused.

'Well,' said Mr Dunning, 'it was gone, I suppose. Broken?'

'Broke!--not it. There warn't, if you'll believe me, no more trace of
them letters--blue letters they was--on that piece o' glass, than--well,
it's no good _me_ talkin'. _I_ never see such a thing. I leave it to
William here if--but there, as I says, where's the benefit in me going on
about it?'

'And what did Mr Timms say?'

'Why 'e did what I give 'im leave to--called us pretty much anythink he
liked, and I don't know as I blame him so much neither. But what we
thought, William and me did, was as we seen you take down a bit of a note
about that--well, that letterin'--'

'I certainly did that, and I have it now. Did you wish me to speak to Mr
Timms myself, and show it to him? Was that what you came in about?'

'There, didn't I say as much?' said William. 'Deal with a gent if you can
get on the track of one, that's my word. Now perhaps, George, you'll
allow as I ain't took you very far wrong tonight.'

'Very well, William, very well; no need for you to go on as if you'd 'ad
to frog's-march me 'ere. I come quiet, didn't I? All the same for that,
we 'adn't ought to take up your time this way, sir; but if it so 'appened
you could find time to step round to the Company orfice in the morning
and tell Mr Timms what you seen for yourself, we should lay under a very
'igh obligation to you for the trouble. You see it ain't bein'
called--well, one thing and another, as we mind, but if they got it into
their 'ead at the orfice as we seen things as warn't there, why, one
thing leads to another, and where we should be a twelvemunce 'ence--well,
you can understand what I mean.'

Amid further elucidations of the proposition, George, conducted by
William, left the room.

The incredulity of Mr Timms (who had a nodding acquaintance with Mr
Dunning) was greatly modified on the following day by what the latter
could tell and show him; and any bad mark that might have been attached
to the names of William and George was not suffered to remain on the
Company's books; but explanation there was none.

Mr Dunning's interest in the matter was kept alive by an incident of the
following afternoon. He was walking from his club to the train, and he
noticed some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are
distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms. This agent had
not chosen a very crowded street for his operations: in fact, Mr Dunning
did not see him get rid of a single leaflet before he himself reached the
spot. One was thrust into his hand as he passed: the hand that gave it
touched his, and he experienced a sort of little shock as it did so. It
seemed unnaturally rough and hot. He looked in passing at the giver, but
the impression he got was so unclear that, however much he tried to
reckon it up subsequently, nothing would come. He was walking quickly,
and as he went on glanced at the paper. It was a blue one. The name of
Harrington in large capitals caught his eye. He stopped, startled, and
felt for his glasses. The next instant the leaflet was twitched out of
his hand by a man who hurried past, and was irrecoverably gone. He ran
back a few paces, but where was the passer-by? and where the distributor?

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the
following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and
filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few
minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted
first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered
behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little
portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized
except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he
proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was
turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him,
who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings,
touched him on the shoulder, saying, 'May I give you this? I think it
should be yours,' and handed him a missing quire. 'It is mine, thank
you,' said Mr Dunning. In another moment the man had left the room. Upon
finishing his work for the afternoon, Mr Dunning had some conversation
with the assistant in charge, and took occasion to ask who the stout
gentleman was. 'Oh, he's a man named Karswell,' said the assistant; 'he
was asking me a week ago who were the great authorities on alchemy, and
of course I told him you were the only one in the country. I'll see if I
can catch him: he'd like to meet you, I'm sure.'

'For heaven's sake don't dream of it!' said Mr Dunning, 'I'm particularly
anxious to avoid him.'

'Oh! very well,' said the assistant, 'he doesn't come here often: I dare
say you won't meet him.'

More than once on the way home that day Mr Dunning confessed to himself
that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary
evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had
stepped in between him and his fellow-men--had taken him in charge, as it
were. He wanted to sit close up to his neighbours in the train and in the
tram, but as luck would have it both train and car were markedly empty.
The conductor George was thoughtful, and appeared to be absorbed in
calculations as to the number of passengers. On arriving at his house he
found Dr Watson, his medical man, on his doorstep. 'I've had to upset
your household arrangements, I'm sorry to say, Dunning. Both your
servants _hors de combat_. In fact, I've had to send them to the Nursing
Home.'

'Good heavens! what's the matter?'

'It's something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you've not
suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn't be walking about. I think
they'll pull through all right.'

'Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?' 'Well, they tell me
they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their dinner-time. It's odd.
I've made inquiries, but I can't find that any hawker has been to other
houses in the street. I couldn't send word to you; they won't be back for
a bit yet. You come and dine with me tonight, anyhow, and we can make
arrangements for going on. Eight o'clock. Don't be too anxious.' The
solitary evening was thus obviated; at the expense of some distress and
inconvenience, it is true. Mr Dunning spent the time pleasantly enough
with the doctor (a rather recent settler), and returned to his lonely
home at about 11.30. The night he passed is not one on which he looks
back with any satisfaction. He was in bed and the light was out. He was
wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to get him hot water
next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door
opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must
mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening after
putting his papers away in his desk. It was rather shame than courage
that induced him to slip out into the passage and lean over the banister
in his nightgown, listening. No light was visible; no further sound came:
only a gust of warm, or even hot air played for an instant round his
shins. He went back and decided to lock himself into his room. There was
more unpleasantness, however. Either an economical suburban company had
decided that their light would not be required in the small hours, and
had stopped working, or else something was wrong with the meter; the
effect was in any case that the electric light was off. The obvious
course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as
well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand
into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.
What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and
with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I
do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a
spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly
conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night,
looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.

The venturing back to his own room in the morning was attended with many
listenings and quiverings. The door stood open, fortunately, and the
blinds were up (the servants had been out of the house before the hour of
drawing them down); there was, to be short, no trace of an inhabitant.
The watch, too, was in its usual place; nothing was disturbed, only the
wardrobe door had swung open, in accordance with its confirmed habit. A
ring at the back door now announced the charwoman, who had been ordered
the night before, and nerved Mr Dunning, after letting her in, to
continue his search in other parts of the house. It was equally
fruitless.

The day thus begun went on dismally enough. He dared not go to the
Museum: in spite of what the assistant had said, Karswell might turn up
there, and Dunning felt he could not cope with a probably hostile
stranger. His own house was odious; he hated sponging on the doctor. He
spent some little time in a call at the Nursing Home, where he was
slightly cheered by a good report of his housekeeper and maid. Towards
lunch-time he betook himself to his club, again experiencing a gleam of
satisfaction at seeing the Secretary of the Association. At luncheon
Dunning told his friend the more material of his woes, but could not
bring himself to speak of those that weighed most heavily on his spirits.
'My poor dear man,' said the Secretary, 'what an upset! Look here: we're
alone at home, absolutely. You must put up with us. Yes! no excuse: send
your things in this afternoon.' Dunning was unable to stand out: he was,
in truth, becoming acutely anxious, as the hours went on, as to what that
night might have waiting for him. He was almost happy as he hurried home
to pack up.

His friends, when they had time to take stock of him, were rather shocked
at his lorn appearance, and did their best to keep him up to the mark.
Not altogether without success: but, when the two men were smoking alone
later, Dunning became dull again. Suddenly he said, 'Gayton, I believe
that alchemist man knows it was I who got his paper rejected.' Gayton
whistled. 'What makes you think that?' he said. Dunning told of his
conversation with the Museum assistant, and Gayton could only agree that
the guess seemed likely to be correct. 'Not that I care much,' Dunning
went on, 'only it might be a nuisance if we were to meet. He's a
bad-tempered party, I imagine.' Conversation dropped again; Gayton became
more and more strongly impressed with the desolateness that came over
Dunning's face and bearing, and finally--though with a considerable
effort--he asked him point-blank whether something serious was not
bothering him. Dunning gave an exclamation of relief. 'I was perishing to
get it off my mind,' he said. 'Do you know anything about a man named
John Harrington?' Gayton was thoroughly startled, and at the moment could
only ask why. Then the complete story of Dunning's experiences came
out--what had happened in the tramcar, in his own house, and in the
street, the troubling of spirit that had crept over him, and still held
him; and he ended with the question he had begun with. Gayton was at a
loss how to answer him. To tell the story of Harrington's end would
perhaps be right; only, Dunning was in a nervous state, the story was a
grim one, and he could not help asking himself whether there were not a
connecting link between these two cases, in the person of Karswell. It
was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could be eased by
the phrase 'hypnotic suggestion'. In the end he decided that his answer
tonight should be guarded; he would talk the situation over with his
wife. So he said that he had known Harrington at Cambridge, and believed
he had died suddenly in 1889, adding a few details about the man and his
published work. He did talk over the matter with Mrs Gayton, and, as he
had anticipated, she leapt at once to the conclusion which had been
hovering before him. It was she who reminded him of the surviving
brother, Henry Harrington, and she also who suggested that he might be
got hold of by means of their hosts of the day before. 'He might be a
hopeless crank,' objected Gayton. 'That could be ascertained from the
Bennetts, who knew him,' Mrs Gayton retorted; and she undertook to see
the Bennetts the very next day.
It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry
Harrington and Dunning were brought together.
The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation that
took place between the two. Dunning had told Harrington of the strange
ways in which the dead man's name had been brought before him, and had
said something, besides, of his own subsequent experiences. Then he had
asked if Harrington was disposed, in return, to recall any of the
circumstances connected with his brother's death. Harrington's surprise
at what he heard can be imagined: but his reply was readily given.

'John,' he said, 'was in a very odd state, undeniably, from time to time,
during some weeks before, though not immediately before, the catastrophe.
There were several things; the principal notion he had was that he
thought he was being followed. No doubt he was an impressionable man, but
he never had had such fancies as this before. I cannot get it out of my
mind that there was ill-will at work, and what you tell me about yourself
reminds me very much of my brother. Can you think of any possible
connecting link?'

'There is just one that has been taking shape vaguely in my mind. I've
been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely not long before
he died, and just lately I have happened to cross the path of the man who
wrote that book in a way he would resent.'

'Don't tell me the man was called Karswell.'

'Why not? that is exactly his name.'

Henry Harrington leant back. 'That is final to my mind. Now I must
explain further. From something he said, I feel sure that my brother John
was beginning to believe--very much against his will--that Karswell was
at the bottom of his trouble. I want to tell you what seems to me to have
a bearing on the situation. My brother was a great musician, and used to
run up to concerts in town. He came back, three months before he died,
from one of these, and gave me his programme to look at--an analytical
programme: he always kept them. "I nearly missed this one," he said. "I
suppose I must have dropped it: anyhow, I was looking for it under my
seat and in my pockets and so on, and my neighbour offered me his, said
'might he give it me, he had no further use for it,' and he went away
just afterwards. I don't know who he was--a stout, clean-shaven man. I
should have been sorry to miss it; of course I could have bought another,
but this cost me nothing." At another time he told me that he had been
very uncomfortable both on the way to his hotel and during the night. I
piece things together now in thinking it over. Then, not very long after,
he was going over these programmes, putting them in order to have them
bound up, and in this particular one (which by the way I had hardly
glanced at), he found quite near the beginning a strip of paper with some
very odd writing on it in red and black--most carefully done--it looked
to me more like Runic letters than anything else. "Why," he said, "this
must belong to my fat neighbour. It looks as if it might be worth
returning to him; it may be a copy of something; evidently someone has
taken trouble over it. How can I find his address?" We talked it over for
a little and agreed that it wasn't worth advertising about, and that my
brother had better look out for the man at the next concert, to which he
was going very soon. The paper was lying on the book and we were both by
the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening. I suppose the door blew
open, though I didn't notice it: at any rate a gust--a warm gust it
was--came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight
into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the
chimney in a single ash. "Well," I said, "you can't give it back now." He
said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, "No, I can't; but why you
should keep on saying so I don't know." I remarked that I didn't say it
more than once. "Not more than four times, you mean," was all he said. I
remember all that very clearly, without any good reason; and now to come
to the point. I don't know if you looked at that book of Karswell's which
my unfortunate brother reviewed. It's not likely that you should: but I
did, both before his death and after it. The first time we made game of
it together. It was written in no style at all--split infinitives, and
every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was
nothing that the man didn't swallow: mixing up classical myths, and
stories out of the _Golden Legend_ with reports of savage customs of
today--all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he
didn't: he seemed to put the _Golden Legend_ and the _Golden Bough_
exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short.
Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the book again. It was no
better than before, but the impression which it left this time on my mind
was different. I suspected--as I told you--that Karswell had borne
ill-will to my brother, even that he was in some way responsible for what
had happened; and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister
performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he
spoke of "casting the Runes" on people, either for the purpose of gaining
their affection or of getting them out of the way--perhaps more
especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed
to me to imply actual knowledge. I've not time to go into details, but
the upshot is that I am pretty sure from information received that the
civil man at the concert was Karswell: I suspect--I more than
suspect--that the paper was of importance: and I do believe that if my
brother had been able to give it back, he might have been alive now.
Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you whether you have anything to put
beside what I have told you.'

By way of answer, Dunning had the episode in the Manuscript Room at the
British Museum to relate.

'Then he did actually hand you some papers; have you examined them? No?
because we must, if you'll allow it, look at them at once, and very
carefully.'

They went to the still empty house--empty, for the two servants were not
yet able to return to work. Dunning's portfolio of papers was gathering
dust on the writing-table. In it were the quires of small-sized
scribbling paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of
these, as he took it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room
with uncanny quickness, a strip of thin light paper. The window was open,
but Harrington slammed it to, just in time to intercept the paper, which
he caught. 'I thought so,' he said; 'it might be the identical thing that
was given to my brother. You'll have to look out, Dunning; this may mean
something quite serious for you.'

A long consultation took place. The paper was narrowly examined. As
Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like Runes than
anything else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to
copy them, for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil
purpose they might conceal. So it has remained impossible (if I may
anticipate a little) to ascertain what was conveyed in this curious
message or commission. Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced
that it had the effect of bringing its possessors into very undesirable
company. That it must be returned to the source whence it came they were
agreed, and further, that the only safe and certain way was that of
personal service; and here contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning
was known by sight to Karswell. He must, for one thing, alter his
appearance by shaving his beard. But then might not the blow fall first?
Harrington thought they could time it. He knew the date of the concert at
which the 'black spot' had been put on his brother: it was June 18th. The
death had followed on Sept. 18th. Dunning reminded him that three months
had been mentioned on the inscription on the car-window. 'Perhaps,' he
added, with a cheerless laugh, 'mine may be a bill at three months too. I
believe I can fix it by my diary. Yes, April 23rd was the day at the
Museum; that brings us to July 23rd. Now, you know, it becomes extremely
important to me to know anything you will tell me about the progress of
your brother's trouble, if it is possible for you to speak of it.' 'Of
course. Well, the sense of being watched whenever he was alone was the
most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in his
room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in
his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before
things are straightened out? I think not, but I can tell you this: two
things came for him by post during those weeks, both with a London
postmark, and addressed in a commercial hand. One was a woodcut of
Bewick's, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road
and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it
were written the lines out of the "Ancient Mariner" (which I suppose the
cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round--

walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

The other was a calendar, such as tradesmen often send. My brother paid
no attention to this, but I looked at it after his death, and found that
everything after Sept. 18 had been torn out. You may be surprised at his
having gone out alone the evening he was killed, but the fact is that
during the last ten days or so of his life he had been quite free from
the sense of being followed or watched.'

The end of the consultation was this. Harrington, who knew a neighbour of
Karswell's, thought he saw a way of keeping a watch on his movements. It
would be Dunning's part to be in readiness to try to cross Karswell's
path at any moment, to keep the paper safe and in a place of ready
access.

They parted. The next weeks were no doubt a severe strain upon Dunning's
nerves: the intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about him on the
day when he received the paper, gradually developed into a brooding
blackness that cut him off from the means of escape to which one might
have thought he might resort. No one was at hand who was likely to
suggest them to him, and he seemed robbed of all initiative. He waited
with inexpressible anxiety as May, June, and early July passed on, for a
mandate from Harrington. But all this time Karswell remained immovable at
Lufford.

At last, in less than a week before the date he had come to look upon as
the end of his earthly activities, came a telegram: 'Leaves Victoria by
boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you to-night.
Harrington.'

He arrived accordingly, and they concocted plans. The train left Victoria
at nine and its last stop before Dover was Croydon West. Harrington would
mark down Karswell at Victoria, and look out for Dunning at Croydon,
calling to him if need were by a name agreed upon. Dunning, disguised as
far as might be, was to have no label or initials on any hand luggage,
and must at all costs have the paper with him.

Dunning's suspense as he waited on the Croydon platform I need not
attempt to describe. His sense of danger during the last days had only
been sharpened by the fact that the cloud about him had perceptibly been
lighter; but relief was an ominous symptom, and, if Karswell eluded him
now, hope was gone: and there were so many chances of that. The rumour of
the journey might be itself a device. The twenty minutes in which he
paced the platform and persecuted every porter with inquiries as to the
boat train were as bitter as any he had spent. Still, the train came, and
Harrington was at the window. It was important, of course, that there
should be no recognition: so Dunning got in at the farther end of the
corridor carriage, and only gradually made his way to the compartment
where Harrington and Karswell were. He was pleased, on the whole, to see
that the train was far from full.

Karswell was on the alert, but gave no sign of recognition. Dunning took
the seat not immediately facing him, and attempted, vainly at first, then
with increasing command of his faculties, to reckon the possibilities of
making the desired transfer. Opposite to Karswell, and next to Dunning,
was a heap of Karswell's coats on the seat. It would be of no use to slip
the paper into these--he would not be safe, or would not feel so, unless
in some way it could be proffered by him and accepted by the other. There
was a handbag, open, and with papers in it. Could he manage to conceal
this (so that perhaps Karswell might leave the carriage without it), and
then find and give it to him? This was the plan that suggested itself. If
he could only have counselled with Harrington! but that could not be. The
minutes went on. More than once Karswell rose and went out into the
corridor. The second time Dunning was on the point of attempting to make
the bag fall off the seat, but he caught Harrington's eye, and read in it
a warning.

Karswell, from the corridor, was watching: probably to see if the two men
recognized each other. He returned, but was evidently restless: and, when
he rose the third time, hope dawned, for something did slip off his seat
and fall with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out once more,
and passed out of range of the corridor window. Dunning picked up what
had fallen, and saw that the key was in his hands in the form of one of
Cook's ticket-cases, with tickets in it. These cases have a pocket in the
cover, and within very few seconds the paper of which we have heard was
in the pocket of this one. To make the operation more secure, Harrington
stood in the doorway of the compartment and fiddled with the blind. It
was done, and done at the right time, for the train was now slowing down
towards Dover.

In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so,
Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice,
handed him the ticket-case, saying, 'May I give you this, sir? I believe
it is yours.' After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered
the hoped-for response, 'Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,' and he
placed it in his breast pocket.

Even in the few moments that remained--moments of tense anxiety, for they
knew not to what a premature finding of the paper might lead--both men
noticed that the carriage seemed to darken about them and to grow warmer;
that Karswell was fidgety and oppressed; that he drew the heap of loose
coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and that he
then sat upright and glanced anxiously at both. They, with sickening
anxiety, busied themselves in collecting their belongings; but they both
thought that Karswell was on the point of speaking when the train stopped
at Dover Town. It was natural that in the short space between town and
pier they should both go into the corridor.

At the pier they got out, but so empty was the train that they were
forced to linger on the platform until Karswell should have passed ahead
of them with his porter on the way to the boat, and only then was it safe
for them to exchange a pressure of the hand and a word of concentrated
congratulation. The effect upon Dunning was to make him almost faint.
Harrington made him lean up against the wall, while he himself went
forward a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which
Karswell had now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket,
and, laden with coats he passed down into the boat. Suddenly the official
called after him, 'You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his
ticket?' 'What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?' Karswell's
snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at
him. 'The devil? Well, I don't know, I'm sure,' Harrington heard him say
to himself, and then aloud, 'My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs!
ask your pardon.' And then, to a subordinate near him, ''Ad he got a dog
with him, or what? Funny thing: I could 'a' swore 'e wasn't alone. Well,
whatever it was, they'll 'ave to see to it aboard. She's off now. Another
week and we shall be gettin' the 'oliday customers.' In five minutes more
there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of
the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.

Long and long the two sat in their room at the 'Lord Warden'. In spite of
the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt,
not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his
death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least?
'No,' said Harrington; 'if he is the murderer I think him, we have done
no more than is just. Still, if you think it better--but how and where
can you warn him?' 'He was booked to Abbeville only,' said Dunning. 'I
saw that. If I wired to the hotels there in Joanne's Guide, "Examine your
ticket-case, Dunning," I should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will
have a day. But I am afraid he has gone into the dark.' So telegrams were
left at the hotel office.

It is not clear whether these reached their destination, or whether, if
they did, they were understood. All that is known is that, on the
afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St
Wulfram's Church at Abbeville, then under extensive repair, was struck on
the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold
erected round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly
proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller's
papers identified him as Mr Karswell.

Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell's sale a set of Bewick, sold
with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of
the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also,
after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of
what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long
before Dunning stopped him.





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Previous: The Tractate Middoth



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