Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

" Tales of Mystery and Imagination es un blog sin ánimo de lucro cuyo único fin consiste en rendir justo homenaje a los escritores de terror, ciencia-ficción y fantasía del mundo. Los derechos de los textos que aquí aparecen pertenecen a cada autor.

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Basil Copper: Camera obscura

AS MR. SHARSTED PUSHED his way up the narrow, fussily conceived lanes that led to the older part of the town, he was increasingly aware that there was something about Mr. Gingold he didn’t like. It was not only the old-fashioned, outdated air of courtesy that irritated the moneylender but the gentle, absent-minded way in which he continually put off settlement. Almost as if money were of no importance.
The moneylender hesitated even to say this to himself; the thought was a blasphemy that rocked the very foundations of his world. He pursed his lips grimly and set himself to mount the ill-paved and flinty roadway that bisected the hilly terrain of this remote part of the town.
The moneylender’s narrow, lopsided face was perspiring under his hard hat; lank hair started from beneath the brim, which lent him a curious aspect. This, combined with the green-tinted spectacles he wore, gave him a sinister, decayed look, like someone long dead. The thought may have occurred to the few, scattered passers-by he met in the course of his ascent, for almost to a person they gave one cautious glance and then hurried on as though eager to be rid of his presence.
He turned in at a small courtyard and stood in the shelter of a great old ruined church to catch his breath; his heart was thumping uncomfortably in the confines of his narrow chest and his breath rasped in his throat. Assuredly, he was out of condition, he told himself. Long hours of sedentary work huddled over his accounts were taking their toll; he really must get out more and take some exercise.

The moneylender’s sallow face brightened momentarily as he thought of his increasing prosperity, but then he frowned again as he remembered the purpose of his errand. Gingold must be made to toe the line, he told himself, as he set out over the last half-mile of his journey.
If he couldn’t raise the necessary cash, there must be many valuables in that rambling old house of his which he could sell and realize on. As Mr. Sharsted forged his way deeper into this forgotten corner of the town, the sun, which was already low in the sky, seemed to have already set, the light was so constricted by the maze of small courts and alleys into which he had plunged. He was panting again when he came at last, abruptly, to a large green door, set crookedly at the top of a flight of time-worn steps.
He stood arrested for a moment or two, one hand grasping the old balustrade, even his mean soul uplifted momentarily by the sight of the smoky haze of the town below, tilted beneath the yellow sky. Everything seemed to be set awry upon this hill, so that the very horizon rushed slanting across the far distance, giving the spectator a feeling of vertigo. A bell pealed faintly as he seized an iron scrollwork pull set into a metal rose alongside the front door. The moneylender’s thoughts were turned to irritation again; everything about Mr. Gingold was peculiar, he felt. Even the fittings of his household were things one never saw elsewhere.
Though this might be an advantage if he ever gained control of Mr. Gingold’s assets and had need to sell the property; there must be a lot of valuable stuff in this old house he had never seen, he mused. Which was another reason he felt it strange that the old man was unable to pay his dues; he must have a great deal of money, if not in cash, in property, one way or another.
He found it difficult to realize why Mr. Gingold kept hedging over a matter of three hundred pounds; he could easily sell the old place and go to live in a more attractive part of town in a modern, well-appointed villa and still keep his antiquarian interests. Mr. Sharsted sighed. Still, it was none of his business. All he was concerned with was the matter of the money; he had been kept waiting long enough, and he wouldn’t be fobbed off any longer. Gingold had got to settle by Monday, or he’d make things unpleasant for him.
Mr. Sharsted’s thin lips tightened in an ugly manner as he mused on, oblivious of the sunset staining the upper storeys of the old houses and dyeing the mean streets below the hill a rich carmine. He pulled the bell again impatiently, and this time the door was opened almost immediately.
Mr. Gingold was a very tall, white-haired man with a gentle, almost apologetic manner. He stood slightly stooping in the doorway, blinking as though astonished at the sunlight, half afraid it would fade him if he allowed too much of it to absorb him.
His clothes, which were of good quality and cut, were untidy and sagged loosely on his big frame; they seemed washed-out in the bright light of the sun and appeared to Mr. Sharsted to be all of a part with the man himself; indeed, Mr. Gingold was rinsed to a pale, insipid shade by the sunshine, so that his white hair and face and clothing ran into one another and, somehow, the different aspects of the picture became blurred and indeterminate.
To Mr. Sharsted he bore the aspect of an old photograph which had never been properly fixed and had turned brown and faded with time. Mr. Sharsted thought he might blow away with the breeze that had started up, but Mr. Gingold merely smiled shyly and said, “Oh, there you are, Sharsted. Come on in,” as though he had been expecting him all the time.
Surprisingly, Mr. Gingold’s eyes were of a marvellous shade of blue and they made his whole face come vividly alive, lighting and challenging the overall neutral tints of his clothing and features. He led the way into a cavernous hall. Mr. Sharsted followed cautiously, his eyes adjusting with difficulty to the cool gloom of the interior. With courteous, old-world motions Mr. Gingold beckoned him forward.
The two men ascended a finely carved staircase, whose balustrades, convoluted and serpentine, seemed to writhe sinuously upwards into the darkness.
“My business will only take a moment,” protested Sharsted, anxious to present his ultimatum and depart. But Mr. Gingold merely continued to ascend the staircase.
“Come along, come along,” he said gently, as though he hadn’t heard Mr. Sharsted’s expostulation. “You must take a glass of wine with me. I have so few visitors . . .”
Mr. Sharsted looked about him curiously; he had never been in this part of the house. Usually, Mr. Gingold received occasional callers in a big, cluttered room on the ground floor. This afternoon, for some reason known only to himself, he had chosen to show Mr. Sharsted another part of his domain. Mr. Sharsted thought that perhaps Mr. Gingold intended to settle the matter of his repayments. This might be where he transacted business, perhaps kept his money. His thin fingers twitched with nervous excitement.
They continued to ascend what seemed to the moneylender to be enormous distances. The staircase still unwound in front of their measured progress. From the little light which filtered in through rounded windows, Sharsted caught occasional glimpses of objects that aroused his professional curiosity and acquisitive sense. Here a large oil painting swung into view round the bend of the stair; in the necessarily brief glance that Mr. Sharsted caught, he could have sworn it was a Poussin.
A moment later, a large sideboard laden with porcelain slid by the corner of his eye. He stumbled on the stair as he glanced back over his shoulder and in so doing, almost missed a rare suit of Genoese armour which stood concealed in a niche set back from the staircase. The moneylender had reached a state of confused bewilderment when at length Mr. Gingold flung aside a large mahogany door, and motioned him forward.
Mr. Gingold must be wealthy man and could easily realize enormous amounts on any one of the objets d’art Sharsted had seen; why then, thought the latter, did he find it necessary to borrow so frequently, and why was it so difficult to obtain repayment? With interest, the sum owed Sharsted had now risen to a considerable figure; Mr. Gingold must be a compulsive buyer of rare items. Allied to the general shabbiness of the house as seen by the casual visitor, it must mean that his collector’s instinct would refuse to allow him to part with anything once bought, which had made him run himself into debt. The moneylender’s lips tightened again; well, he must be made to settle his debts, like anyone else.
If not, perhaps Sharsted could force him to part with something—porcelain, a picture—that could be made to realize a handsome profit on the deal. Business was business, and Gingold could not expect him to wait forever. His musings were interrupted by a query from his host and Sharsted muttered an apology as he saw that Mr. Gingold was waiting, one hand on the neck of a heavy silver and crystal decanter.
“Yes, yes, a sherry, thank you,” he murmured in confusion, moving awkwardly. The light was so bad in this place that he felt it difficult to focus his eyes, and objects had a habit of shifting and billowing as though seen under water. Mr. Sharsted was forced to wear tinted spectacles, as his eyes had been weak from childhood. They made these apartments seem twice as dark as they might be. But though Mr. Sharsted squinted over the top of his lenses as Mr. Gingold poured the sherry, he still could not make out objects clearly. He really would have to consult his oculist soon, if this trouble continued.
His voice sounded hollow to his own ears as he ventured a commonplace when Mr. Gingold handed him the glass. He sat down gingerly on a ladderback chair indicated to him by Mr. Gingold, and sipped at the amber liquid in a hesitant fashion. It tasted uncommonly good, but this unexpected hospitality was putting him on a wrong footing with Gingold. He must assert himself and broach the subject of his business. But he felt a curious reluctance and merely sat on in embarrassed silence, one hand round the stem of his goblet, listening to the soothing tick of an old clock, which was the only thing which broke the silence.
He saw now that he was in a large apartment, expensively furnished, which must be high up in the house, under the eaves. Hardly a sound from outside penetrated the windows, which were hung with thick blue-velvet curtains; the parquet floor was covered with exquisitely worked Chinese rugs and the room was apparently divided in half by heavy velvet curtaining to match those which masked the windows.
Mr. Gingold said little, but sat at a large mahogany table, tapping his sherry glass with his long fingers; his bright blue eyes looked with mild interest at Mr. Sharsted as they spoke of everyday matters. At last Mr. Sharsted was moved to broach the object of his visit. He spoke of the long-outstanding sum which he had advanced to Mr. Gingold, of the continued applications for settlement and of the necessity of securing early payment. Strangely, as Mr. Sharsted progressed, his voice began to stammer and eventually he was at a loss for words; normally, as working-class people in the town had reason to know, he was brusque, businesslike, and ruthless. He never hesitated to distrain on debtor’s goods, or to evict if necessary and that he was the object of universal hatred in the outside world, bothered him not in the slightest.
In fact, he felt it to be an asset; his reputation in business affairs preceded him, as it were, and acted as an incentive to prompt repayment. If people were fool enough to be poor or to run into debt and couldn’t meet their dues, well then, let them; it was all grist to his mill and he could not be expected to run his business on a lot of sentimental nonsense. He felt more irritated with Mr. Gingold than he need have been, for his money was obviously safe; but what continued to baffle him was the man’s gentle docility, his obvious wealth and his reluctance to settle his debts.
Something of this must have eventually permeated his conversation, for Mr. Gingold shifted in his seat, made no comment whatever on Mr. Sharsted’s pressing demands and only said, in another of his softly spoken sentences, “Do have another sherry, Mr. Sharsted.”
The moneylender felt all the strength going out of him as he weakly assented. He leaned back on his comfortable chair with a swimming head and allowed the second glass to be pressed into his hand, the thread of his discourse completely lost. He mentally cursed himself for a dithering fool and tried to concentrate, but Mr. Gingold’s benevolent smile, the curious way the objects in the room shifted and wavered in the heat haze, the general gloom and the discreet curtaining, came more and more to weigh on and oppress his spirits.
So it was with something like relief that Sharsted saw his host rise from the table. He had not changed the topic, but continued to speak as though Mr. Sharsted had never mentioned money to him at all; he merely ignored the whole situation and, with an enthusiasm Sharsted found difficult to share, murmured soothingly on about Chinese wall paintings, a subject of which Mr. Sharsted knew nothing.
He found his eyes closing and with an effort opened them again. Mr. Gingold was saying, “I think this will interest you, Mr. Sharsted. Come along . . .”
His host had moved forward and the moneylender, following him down the room, saw that the large expanse of velvet curtaining was in motion. The two men walked through the parted curtains, which closed behind them, and Mr. Sharsted then saw that they were in a semicircular chamber.
This room was, if anything, even dimmer than the one they had just left. But the moneylender’s interest began to revive; his head felt clearer and he took in a large circular table, some brass wheels and levers which winked in the gloom, and a long shaft which went up to the ceiling.
“This has almost become an obsession with me,” murmured Mr. Gingold, as though apologizing to his guest. “You are aware of the principles of the camera obscura, Mr. Sharsted?”
The moneylender pondered slowly, reaching back into memory. “Some sort of Victorian toy, isn’t it?” he said at length. Mr. Gingold looked pained, but the expression of his voice did not change.
“Hardly that, Mr. Sharsted,” he rejoined. “A most fascinating pursuit. Few people of my acquaintance have been here and seen what you are going to see.”
He motioned to the shafting, which passed up through a louvre in the ceiling.
“These controls are coupled to the system of lenses and prisms on the roof. As you will see, the hidden camera, as the Victorian scientists came to call it, gathers a panorama of the town below and transmits it here on to the viewing table. An absorbing study, one’s fellow man, don’t you think? I spend many hours up here.”
Mr. Sharsted had never heard Mr. Gingold in such a talkative mood and now that the wretchedness which had assailed him earlier had disappeared, he felt more suited to tackle him about his debts. First, he would humour him by feigning interest in his stupid toy. But Mr. Sharsted had to admit, almost with a gasp of surprise, that Mr. Gingold’s obsession had a valid cause.
For suddenly, as Mr. Gingold moved his hand upon the lever, the room was flooded with light of a blinding clarity and the moneylender saw why gloom was a necessity in this chamber. Presumably, a shutter over the camera obscura slid away upon the rooftop and almost at the same moment, a panel in the ceiling opened to admit a shaft of light directed upon the table before them.
In a second of God-like vision, Mr. Sharsted saw a panorama of part of the old town spread out before him in superbly natural colour. Here were the quaint, cobbled streets dropping to the valley, with the blue hills beyond; factory chimneys smoked in the early evening air; people went about their business in half a hundred roads; distant traffic went noiselessly on its way; once, even, a great white bird soared across the field of vision, so apparently close that Mr. Sharsted started back from the table.
Mr. Gingold gave a dry chuckle and moved a brass wheel at his elbow. The viewpoint abruptly shifted and Mr. Sharsted saw, with another gasp, a sparkling vista of the estuary with a big coaling ship moving slowly out to sea. Gulls soared in the foreground and the sullen wash of the tide ringed the shore. Mr. Sharsted, his errand quite forgotten, was fascinated. Half an hour must have passed, each view more enchanting than the last; from this height, the squalor of the town was quite transformed.
He was abruptly recalled to the present, however, by the latest of the views; Mr. Gingold spun the control for the last time and a huddle of crumbling tenements wheeled into view. “The former home of Mrs. Thwaites, I believe,” said Mr. Gingold mildly.
Mr. Sharsted flushed and bit his lip in anger. The Thwaites business had aroused more notoriety than he had intended; the woman had borrowed a greater sum than she could afford, the interest mounted, she borrowed again; could he help it if she had a tubercular husband and three children? He had to make an example of her in order to keep his other clients in line; now there was a distraint on the furniture and the Thwaiteses were being turned on to the street. Could he help this? If only people would repay their debts all would be well; he wasn’t a philanthropic institution, he told himself angrily.
And at this reference to what was rapidly becoming a scandal in the town, all his smouldering resentment against Mr. Gingold broke out afresh; enough of all these views and childish playthings. Camera obscura, indeed; if Mr. Gingold did not meet his obligations like a gentleman he could sell this pretty toy to meet his debt.
He controlled himself with an effort as he turned to meet Mr. Gingold’s gently ironic gaze.
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Sharsted. “The Thwaites business is my affair, Mr. Gingold. Will you please confine yourself to the matter in hand. I have had to come here again at great inconvenience; I must tell you that if the £300, representing the current installment on our loan, is not forthcoming by Monday, I shall be obliged to take legal action.”
Mr. Sharsted’s cheeks were burning and his voice trembled as he pronounced these words; if he expected a violent reaction from Mr. Gingold, he was disappointed. The latter merely gazed at him in mute reproach.
“This is your last word?” he said regretfully. “You will not reconsider?”
“Certainly not,” snapped Mr. Sharsted. “I must have the money by Monday.”
“You misunderstand me, Mr. Sharsted,” said Mr. Gingold, still in that irritatingly mild voice. “I was referring to Mrs. Thwaites. Must you carry on with this unnecessary and somewhat inhuman action? I would . . .”
“Please mind your own business!” retorted Mr. Sharsted, exasperated beyond measure. “Mind what I say . . .”
He looked wildly round for the door through which he had entered.
“That is your last word?” said Mr. Gingold again. One look at the moneylender’s set, white face was his mute answer.
“Very well, then,” said Mr. Gingold, with a heavy sigh. “So be it. I will see you on your way.”
He moved forward again, pulling a heavy velvet cloth over the table of the camera obscura. The louvre in the ceiling closed with a barely audible rumble. To Mr. Sharsted’s surprise, he found himself following his host up yet another flight of stairs; these were of stone, fringed with an iron balustrade which was cold to the touch.
His anger was now subsiding as quickly as it had come; he was already regretting losing his temper over the Thwaites business and he hadn’t intended to sound so crude and cold-blooded. What must Mr. Gingold think of him? Strange how the story could have got to his ears; surprising how much information about the outside world a recluse could obtain just by sitting still.
Though, on this hill, he supposed Mr. Gingold could be said to be at the centre of things. He shuddered suddenly, for the air seemed to have grown cold. Through a slit in the stone wall he could see the evening sky was already darkening. He really must be on his way; how did the old fool expect him to find his way out when they were still mounting to the very top of the house?
Mr. Sharsted regretted, too, that in antagonizing Mr. Gingold, he might have made it even more difficult to obtain his money; it was almost as though, in mentioning Mrs. Thwaites and trying to take her part, he had been trying a form of subtle blackmail.
He would not have expected it of Gingold; it was not like him to meddle in other people’s affairs. If he was so fond of the poor and needy he could well afford to advance the family some money themselves to tide them over their difficulties.
His brain seething with these confused and angry thoughts, Mr. Sharsted, panting and dishevelled, now found himself on a worn stone platform where Mr. Gingold was putting the key into an ancient wooden lock.
“My workshop,” he explained, with a shy smile to Mr. Sharsted, who felt his tension eased away by this drop in the emotional atmosphere. Looking through an old, nearly triangular window in front of him, Mr. Sharsted could see that they were in a small, turreted superstructure which towered a good twenty feet over the main roof of the house. There was a sprawl of unfamiliar alleys at the foot of the steep overhang of the building, as far as he could make out through the grimy panes.
“There is a staircase down the outside,” explained Mr. Gingold, opening the door. “It will lead you down the other side of the hill and cut over half a mile off your journey.”
The moneylender felt a sudden rush of relief at this. He had come almost to fear this deceptively mild and quiet old man who, though he said little and threatened not at all, had begun to exude a faint air of menace to Mr. Sharsted’s now over-heated imagination.
“But first,” said Mr. Gingold, taking the other man’s arm in a surprisingly powerful grip, “I want to show you something else—and this really has been seen by very few people indeed.”
Mr. Sharsted looked at the other quickly, but could read nothing in Mr. Gingold’s enigmatic blue eyes.
He was surprised to find a similar, though smaller, chamber to the one they had just left. There was another table, another shaft ascending to a domed cupola in the ceiling, and a further arrangement of wheels and tubes.
“This camera obscura,” said Mr. Gingold, “is a very rare model, to be sure. In fact, I believe there are only three in existence today, and one of those is in Northern Italy.”
Mr. Sharsted cleared his throat and made a non-committal reply.
“I felt sure you would like to see this before you leave,” said Mr. Gingold softly. “You are quite sure you won’t change your mind?” he added, almost inaudibly, as he bent over the levers. “About Mrs. Thwaites, I mean.”
Sharsted felt another sudden spirt of anger, but kept his feelings under control.
“I’m sorry . . .” he began.
“No matter,” said Mr. Gingold, regretfully. “I only wanted to make sure, before we had a look at this.”
He laid his hand with infinite tenderness on Mr. Sharsted’s shoulder as he drew him forward.
He pressed the lever and Mr. Sharsted almost cried out with the suddenness of the vision. He was God; the world was spread out before him in a crazy pattern, or at least the segment of it representing the part of the town surrounding the house in which he stood.
He viewed it from a great height, as a man might from an aeroplane; though nothing was quite in perspective.
The picture was of enormous clarity; it was like looking into an old cheval glass which had a faint distorting quality. There was something oblique and elliptical about the sprawl of alleys and roads that spread about the foot of the hill.
The shadows were mauve and violet, and the extremes of the picture were still tinged with the blood red of the dying sun.
It was an appalling, cataclysmic vision, and Mr. Sharsted was shattered; he felt suspended in space, and almost cried out at the dizziness of the height.
When Mr. Gingold twirled the wheel and the picture slowly began to revolve, Mr. Sharsted did cry out and had to clutch at the back of a chair to prevent himself from falling.
He was perturbed, too, as he caught a glimpse of a big, white building in the foreground of the picture.
“I thought that was the old Corn Exchange,” he said in bewilderment. “Surely that burned down before the last war?”
“Eigh,” said Mr. Gingold, as though he hadn’t heard.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Sharsted, who now felt quite confused and ill. It must be the combination of the sherry and the enormous height at which he was viewing the vision in the camera obscura.
It was a demoniacal toy and he shrank away from the figure of Mr. Gingold, which looked somewhat sinister in the blood-red and mauve light reflected from the image in the polished table surface.
“I thought you’d like to see this one,” said Mr. Gingold, in that same maddening, insipid voice. “It’s really special, isn’t it? Quite the best of the two . . . you can see all sorts of things that are normally hidden.”
As he spoke there appeared on the screen two old buildings which Mr. Sharsted was sure had been destroyed during the war; in fact, he was certain that a public garden and car park had now been erected on the site. His mouth suddenly became dry; he was not sure whether he had drunk too much sherry or the heat of the day had been too much for him.
He had been about to make a sharp remark that the sale of the camera obscura would liquidate Mr. Gingold’s current debt, but he felt this would not be a wise comment to make at this juncture. He felt faint, his brow went hot and cold and Mr. Gingold was at his side in an instant.
Mr. Sharsted became aware that the picture had faded from the table and that the day was rapidly turning to dusk outside the dusty windows.
“I really must be going,” he said with feeble desperation, trying to free himself from Mr. Gingold’s quietly persistent grip.
“Certainly, Mr. Sharsted,” said his host. “This way.” He led him without ceremony over to a small oval doorway in a corner of the far wall.
“Just go down the stairs. It will bring you on to the street. Please slam the bottom door—it will lock itself.” As he spoke, he opened the door and Mr. Sharsted saw a flight of clean, dry stone steps leading downwards. Light still flooded in from windows set in the circular walls.
Mr. Gingold did not offer his hand and Mr. Sharsted stood rather awkwardly, holding the door ajar.
“Until Monday, then,” he said.
Mr. Gingold flatly ignored this.
“Goodnight, Mr. Gingold,” said the moneylender with nervous haste, anxious to be gone.
“Goodbye, Mr. Sharsted,” said Mr. Gingold with kind finality.
Mr. Sharsted almost thrust himself through the door and nervously fled down the staircase, mentally cursing himself for all sorts of a fool. His feet beat a rapid tattoo that echoed eerily up and down the old tower. Fortunately, there was still plenty of light; this would be a nasty place in the dark. He slowed his pace after a few moments and thought bitterly of the way he had allowed old Gingold to gain the ascendancy over him; and what an impertinence of the man to interfere in the matter of the Thwaites woman.
He would see what sort of man Mr. Sharsted was when Monday came and the eviction went according to plan. Monday would also be a day of reckoning for Mr. Gingold—it was a day they would both remember and Mr. Sharsted felt himself quite looking forward to it.
He quickened his pace again, and presently found himself confronted by a thick oak door.
It gave beneath his hand as he lifted the big, well-oiled catch and the next moment he was in a high-walled alley leading to the street. The door slammed hollowly behind him and he breathed in the cool evening air with a sigh of relief. He jammed his hard hat back onto his head and strode out over the cobbles, as though to affirm the solidity of the outside world.
Once in the street, which seemed somewhat unfamiliar to him, he hesitated which way to go and then set off to the right. He remembered that Mr. Gingold had told him that this way took him over the other side of the hill; he had never been in this part of the town and the walk would do him good.
The sun had quite gone and a thin sliver of moon was showing in the early evening sky. There seemed few people about and when, ten minutes later, Mr. Sharsted came out into a large square which had five or six roads leading off it, he determined to ask the correct way back down to his part of the town. With luck he could catch a tram, for he had now had enough of walking for one day.
There was a large, smoke-grimed chapel on a corner of this square and as Mr. Sharsted passed it, he caught a glimpse of a board with gold-painted letters.
NINIAN’S REVIVALIST BROTHERHOOD, it said. The date, in flaked gold paint, was 1925.
Mr. Sharsted walked on and selected the most important of the roads which faced him. It was getting quite dark and the lamps had not yet been lit on this part of the hill. As he went farther down, the buildings closed in about his head, and the lights of the town below disappeared. Mr. Sharsted felt lost and a little forlorn. Due, no doubt, to the faintly incredible atmosphere of Mr. Gingold’s big house.
He determined to ask the next passer-by for the right direction, but for the moment he couldn’t see anyone about; the absence of streetlights also bothered him. The municipal authorities must have overlooked this section when they switched on at dusk, unless it came under the jurisdiction of another body.
Mr. Sharsted was musing in this manner when he turned the corner of a narrow street and came out opposite a large, white building that looked familiar. For years Mr. Sharsted had a picture of it on the yearly calendar sent by a local tradesman, which used to hang in his office. He gazed at its facade with mounting bewilderment as he approached. The title, CORN EXCHANGE, winked back dully in the moonlight as he got near enough to make out the lettering.
Mr. Sharsted’s bewilderment changed to distinct unease as he thought frantically that he had already seen this building once before this evening, in the image captured by the lens of Mr. Gingold’s second camera obscura. And he knew with numbing certainty that the old Corn Exchange had burned down in the late thirties.
He swallowed heavily, and hurried on; there was something devilishly wrong, unless he were the victim of an optical illusion engendered by the violence of his thoughts, the unaccustomed walking he had done that day, and the two glasses of sherry.
He had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Gingold might be watching him at that very moment, on the table of his camera obscura, and at the thought a cold sweat burst out on his forehead.
He sent himself forward at a smart trot and had soon left the Corn Exchange far behind. In the distance he heard the sharp clapping and the grating rattle of a horse and cart, but as he gained the entrance of an alley he was disappointed to see its shadow disappear round the corner into the next road. He still could not see any people about and again had difficulty in fixing his position in relation to the town.
He set off once more, with a show of determination he was far from feeling, and five minutes later arrived in the middle of a square which was already familiar to him.
There was a chapel on the corner and Mr. Sharsted read for the second time that evening the legend: NINIAN’S REVIVALIST BROTHERHOOD.
He stamped his foot in anger. He had walked quite three miles and had been fool enough to describe a complete circle; here he was, not five minutes from Gingold’s house, where he had set out nearly an hour before.
He pulled out his watch at this and was surprised to find it was only a quarter past six, though he could have sworn this was the time he had left Gingold.
Though it could have been a quarter past five; he hardly knew what he was doing this afternoon. He shook it to make sure it was still going and then replaced it in his pocket.
His feet beat the pavement in his fury as he ran down the length of the square. This time he wouldn’t make the same silly mistake. He unhesitatingly chose a large, well-kept metalled road that ran fair and square in the direction he knew must take him back to the centre of the town. He found himself humming a little tune under his breath. As he turned the next corner, his confidence increased.
Lights burned brightly on every hand; the authorities must have realized their mistake and finally switched on. But again he was mistaken; there was a little cart parked at the side of the road, with a horse in the shafts. An old man mounted a ladder set against a lamp-post and Mr. Sharsted saw the thin blue flame in the gloom and then the mellow blossoming of the gas lamp.
Now he felt irritated again; what an incredibly archaic part of the town old Gingold lived in. It would just suit him. Gas lamps! And what a system for lighting them; Sharsted thought this method had gone out with the Ark.
Nevertheless, he was most polite.
“Good evening,” he said, and the figure at the top of the lamppost stirred uneasily. The face was in deep shadow.
“Good evening, sir,” the lamplighter said in a muffled voice. He started climbing down.
“Could you direct me to the town center?” said Mr. Sharsted with simulated confidence. He took a couple of paces forward and was then arrested with a shock.
There was a strange, sickly stench which reminded him of something he was unable to place. Really, the drains in this place were terrible; he certainly would have to write to the town hall about this backward part of the locality.
The lamplighter had descended to the ground now and he put something down in the back of his cart; the horse shifted uneasily and again Mr. Sharsted caught the charnel stench, sickly sweet on the summer air.
“This is the town center as far as I know, sir,” said the lamplighter. As he spoke he stepped forward and the pale lamplight fell on to his face, which had been in shadow before.
Mr. Sharsted no longer waited to ask for any more directions but set off down the road at breakneck speed, not sure whether the green pallor of the man’s face was due to a terrible suspicion or the green-tinted glasses he wore.
What he was certain of was that something like a mass of writhing worms projected below the man’s cap, where his hair would normally have been. Mr. Sharsted hadn’t waited to find out if this Medusa-like supposition were correct; beneath his hideous fear burned a savage anger at Gingold, whom somehow he suspected to be at the back of all these troubles.
Mr. Sharsted fervently hoped that he might soon wake to find himself at home in bed, ready to begin the day that had ended so ignominiously at Gingold’s, but even as he formulated the thought, he knew this was reality. This cold moonlight, the hard pavement, his frantic flight, and the breath rasping and sobbing in his throat.
As the mist cleared from in front of his eyes, he slowed to a walk and then found himself in the middle of a square; he knew where he was and he had to force his nerves into a terrible, unnatural calm, just this side of despair. He walked with controlled casualness past the legend, NINIAN’S REVIVALIST BROTHERHOOD, and this time chose the most unlikely road of all, little more than a narrow alley that appeared to lead in the wrong direction.
Mr. Sharsted was willing to try anything which would lead him off this terrifying, accursed hill. There were no lights here and his feet stumbled on the rough stones and flints of the unmade roadway, but at least he was going downhill and the track gradually spiralled until he was in the right direction.
For some little while Mr. Sharsted had heard faint, elusive stirrings in the darkness about him and once he was startled to hear, some way ahead of him, a muffled cough. At least there were other people about, at last, he thought and he was comforted, too, to see, far ahead of him, the dim lights of the town.
As he grew nearer, Mr. Sharsted recovered his spirits and was relieved to see that they did not recede from him, as he had half suspected they might. The shapes about him, too, were solid enough. Their feet rang hollow on the roadway; evidently they were on their way to a meeting.
As Mr. Sharsted came under the light of the first lamp, his earlier panic fear had abated. He still couldn’t recognize exactly where he was, but the trim villas they were passing were more reminiscent of the town proper.
Mr. Sharsted stepped up onto the pavement when they reached the well-lit area and in so doing, cannoned into a large, well-built man who had just emerged from a gateway to join the throng in the roadway.
Mr. Sharsted staggered under the impact and once again his nostrils caught the sickly sweet perfume of decay. The man caught him by the front of the coat to prevent him from falling.
“Evening, Mordecai,” he said in a thick voice. “I thought you’d be coming, sooner or later.”
Mr. Sharsted could not resist a cry of bubbling terror. It was not just the greenish pallor of the man’s face or the rotted, leathery lips drawn back from the decayed teeth. He fell back against the fence as Abel Joyce passed on—Abel Joyce, a fellow moneylender and usurer who had died in the nineteen-twenties and whose funeral Mr. Sharsted had attended.
Blackness was about him as he rushed away, a sobbing whistle in his throat. He was beginning to understand Mr. Gingold and that devilish camera obscura; the lost and the damned. He began to babble to himself under his breath.
Now and again he cast a sidelong glimpse at his companions as he ran; there was old Mrs. Sanderson who used to lay out corpses and rob her charges; there Grayson, the estate agent and undertaker; Amos, the war profiteer; Drucker, a swindler, all green of pallor and bearing with them the charnel stench.
All people Mr. Sharsted had business with at one time or another and all of whom had one thing in common. Without exception all had been dead for quite a number of years. Mr. Sharsted stuffed his handkerchief over his mouth to blot out that unbearable odour and heard the mocking laughter as his racing feet carried him past.
“Evening, Mordecai,” they said. “We thought you’d be joining us.” Mr. Gingold equated him with these ghouls, he sobbed, as he ran on at headlong speed; if only he could make him understand. Sharsted didn’t deserve such treatment. He was a businessman, not like these bloodsuckers on society; the lost and the damned. Now he knew why the Corn Exchange still stood and why the town was unfamiliar. It existed only in the eye of the camera obscura. Now he knew that Mr. Gingold had been trying to give him a last chance and why he had said goodbye, instead of goodnight.
There was just one hope; if he could find the door back to Mr. Gingold’s perhaps he could make him change his mind. Mr. Sharsted’s feet flew over the cobbles as he thought this; his hat fell down and he scraped his hands against the wall. He left the walking corpses far behind, but though he was now looking for the familiar square he seemed to be finding his way back to the Corn Exchange.
He stopped for a moment to regain his breath. He must work this out logically. How had it happened before? Why, of course, by walking away from the desired destination. Mr. Sharsted turned back and set himself to walk steadily towards the lights. Though terrified, he did not despair, now that he knew what he was up against. He felt himself a match for Mr. Gingold. If only he could find the door!
As he reached the warm circle cast by the glow of the street lamps, Mr. Sharsted breathed a sigh of relief. For as he turned a corner there was the big square, with the soot-grimed chapel on the corner. He hurried on. He must remember exactly the turnings he had taken; he couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
So much depended on it. If only he could have another chance—he would let the Thwaites family keep their house, he would even be willing to forget Gingold’s debt. He couldn’t face the possibility of walking these endless streets—for how long? And with the creatures he had
seen . . .
Mr. Sharsted groaned as he remembered the face of one old woman he had seen earlier that evening—or what was left of that face, after years of wind and weather. He suddenly recalled that she had died before the 1914 war. The sweat burst out on his forehead and he tried not to think of it.
Once off the square, he plunged into the alley he remembered. Ah! there it was. Now all he had to do was to go to the left and there was the door. His heart beat higher and he began to hope, with a sick longing, for the security of his well-appointed house and his rows of friendly ledgers. Only one more corner. He ran on and turned up the road towards Mr. Gingold’s door. Another thirty yards to the peace of the ordinary world.
The moonlight winked on a wide, well-paved square. Shone, too, on a legend painted in gold leaf on a large board: NINIAN’S REVIVALIST BROTHERHOOD. The date was 1925.
Mr. Sharsted gave a hideous yell of fear and despair and fell to the pavement.

Mr. Gingold sighed heavily and yawned. He glanced at the clock. It was time for bed. He went over once again and stared into the camera obscura. It had been a not altogether unsuccessful day. He put a black velvet cloth over the image in the lens and went off slowly to bed.
Under the cloth, in pitiless detail, was reflected the narrow tangle of streets round Mr. Gingold’s house, seen as through the eye of God; there went Mr. Sharsted and his colleagues, the lost and the damned, trapped for eternity, stumbling, weeping, swearing, as they slipped and scrabbled along the alleys and squares of their own private hell, under the pale light of the stars.


Hamhock said...

I just got done watching this story as depicted on NIGHT GALLERY. It is one of my favourite episodes of the series. Ross Martin and a young Rene Auberjonois were excellent in this. There were some things I couldn't understand about it thought -- what was with all those faces in Gingold's home? One of the actors in the segment passed away last year. There have been many different works on television since then, but most don't measure up compared to this.

MJJM said...

I just read this story. Interesting to hear that Aberjonois played Sharsted in the TV adaption. I can just see that (though I was picturing Steve Buscemi as the character).

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