Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Algernon Blackwood: A Confession

Algernon Blackwood: A Confession, Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales


The fog swirled slowly round him, driven by a heavy movement of its own, for of course there was no wind. It hung in poisonous thick coils and loops; it rose and sank; no light penetrated it directly from street lamp or motorcar, though here and there some big shop window shed a glimmering patch upon its ever-shifting curtain.
O’Reilly’s eyes ached and smarted with the incessant effort to see a foot beyond his face. The optic nerve grew tired, and sight, accordingly, less accurate. He coughed as he shuffled forward cautiously through the choking gloom. Only the stifled rumble of crawling traffic persuaded him he was in a crowded city at
all—this, and the vague outlines of groping figures, hugely magnified, emerging suddenly and disappearing again, as they fumbled along inch by inch towards uncertain destinations.
The figures, however, were human beings; they were real. That much he knew. He heard their muffled  voices, now close, now distant, strangely smothered always. He also heard the tapping of innumerable sticks, feeling for iron railings or the kerb. These phantom outlines represented living people. He was not alone.
It was the dread of finding himself quite alone that haunted him, for he was still unable to cross an open space without assistance. He had the physical strength, it was the mind that failed him.
Midway the panic terror might descend upon him, he would shake all over, his will dissolve, he would shriek for help, run wildly—into the traffic probably—or, as they called it in his North Ontario home, “throw a fit” in the street before advancing wheels. He was not yet entirely cured, although under ordinary conditions he was safe enough, as Dr. Henry had assured him.
When he left Regent’s Park by Tube an hour ago the air was clear, the November sun shone brightly, the pale blue sky was cloudless, and. The assumption that he could manage the journey across London Town alone was justified. The following day he was to leave for Brighton for the week of final convalescence: this little preliminary test of his powers on a bright November afternoon was all to the good. Doctor Henry furnished minute instructions: “You change at Piccadilly Circus—without leaving the underground station, mind—and get out at South Kensington. You know the address of your V.A.D. friend. Have your cup of tea with her, then come back the same way to Regent’s Park. Come back before dark—say six o’clock at latest. It’s better.” He had described exactly what turns to take after leaving the station, so many to the right, so many to the left; it was a little confusing, but the distance was short. “You can always ask. You can’t possibly go wrong.”



The unexpected fog, however, now blurred these instructions in a confused jumble in his mind. The failure of outer sight reacted upon memory. The V.A.D. besides had warned him that her address was “not easy to find the first time. The house lies in a backwater. But with your ‘backwoods’ instincts you’ll probably manage it better than any Londoner!” She, too, had not calculated upon the fog.
When O’Reilly came up the stairs at South Kensington Station, he emerged into such murky darkness
that he thought he was still underground. An impenetrable world lay round him. Only a raw bite in the
damp atmosphere told him he stood beneath an open sky. For some little time he stood and stared—a Canadian soldier, his home among clear brilliant spaces, now face to face for the first time in his life with that
thing he had so often read about—a bad London fog. With keenest interest and surprise he enjoyed the novel spectacle for perhaps ten minutes, watching the people arrive and vanish, and wondering why the station lights stopped dead the instant they touched the street—then, with a sense of adventure—it cost an effort—he left the covered building and plunged into the opaque sea beyond.
Repeating to himself the directions he had
received—first to the right, second to the left, once
more to the left, and so forth--he checked each turn,
assuring himself it was impossible to go wrong. He
made correct if slow progress, until someone
blundered into him with an abrupt and startling ques
tion: “Is this right, do you know, for South Kensington
Station?”
It was the suddenness that startled him; one
moment there was no one, the next they were face to
face, another, and the stranger had vanished into the
gloom with a courteous word of grateful thanks. But
the little shock of interruption had put memory out of
gear. Had he already turned twice to the right, or had
he not? O’Reilly realised sharply he had forgotten his
memorised instructions. He stood still, making
strenuous efforts at recovery, but each effort left him
more uncertain than before. Five minutes later he was
lost as hopelessly as any townsman who leaves his tent
in the backwoods without blazing the trees to ensure
finding his way back again. Even the sense of direc
tion, so strong in him among his native forests, was
completely gone. There were no stars, there was no
wind, no smell, no sound of running water. There was
nothing anywhere to guide him, nothing but occa
sional dim outlines, groping, shuffling, emerging and
disappearing in the eddying fog, but rarely coming
within actual speaking, much less touching, distance.
He was lost utterly; more, he was alone.
Yet not
quite
alone—the thing he dreaded most.
There were figures still in his immediate neighbour
hood. They emerged, vanished, reappeared, dissolved.
No, he was not quite alone. He saw these thickenings
of the fog, he heard their voices, the tapping of their
cautious sticks, their shuffling feet as well. They were
real. They moved, it seemed, about him in a circle,
never coming very close.
“But they’re real,” he said to himself aloud, betray
ing the weak point in his armour. “They’re human
beings right enough. I’m positive of that.”
He had never argued with Dr. Henry—he wanted
to get well; he had obeyed implicitly, believing
everything the doctor told him—up to a point. But he
had always had his own idea about these “figures,”
because, among them, were often enough his own
pals from the Somme, Gallipoli, the Mespot horror,
too. And he ought to know his own pals when he saw
them! At the same time he knew quite well he had
been “shocked,” his being dislocated, half dissolved as
it were, his system pushed into some lopsided condi
tion that meant inaccurate registration. True.
He grasped that perfectly. But, in that shock and
dislocation, had he not possibly picked up another
gear? Were there not gaps and broken edges, pieces
that no longer dovetailed, fitted as usual, interstices,
in a word? Yes, that was the word—interstices. Cracks,
so to speak, between his perception of the outside
world and his inner interpretation of these? Between
memory and recognition? Between the various states
of consciousness that usually dove-tailed so neatly
that the joints were normally imperceptible?
His state, he well knew, was abnormal, but were his
symptoms on that account unreal? Could not these
“interstices” be used by—others? When he saw his
“figures,” he used to ask himself: “Are not these the
real ones, and the others—the human beings—
unreal?”
This question now revived in him with a new
intensity. Were these figures in the fog real or unreal?
The man who had asked the way to the station, was he
not, after all, a shadow merely?
By the use of his cane and foot and what of sight
was left to him he knew that he was on an island. A
lamppost stood up solid and straight beside him,
shedding its faint patch of glimmering light. Yet there
were railings, however, that puzzled him, for his stick
hit the metal rods distinctly in a series. And there
should be no railings round an island. Yet he had
most certainly crossed a dreadful open space to get
where he was. His confusion and bewilderment
increased with dangerous rapidity. Panic was not far
away.
He was no longer on an omnibus route. A rare taxi
crawled past occasionally, a whitish patch at the win
dow indicating an anxious human face; now and again
came a van or cart, the driver holding a lantern as he
led the stumbling horse. These comforted him, rare
though they were. But it was the figures that drew his
attention most. He was quite sure they were real. They
were human beings like himself.
For all that, he decided he might as well be positive
on the point. He tried one accordingly—a big man
who rose suddenly before him out of the very earth.
“Can you give me the trail to Morley Place?” he
asked.
But his question was drowned by the other’s simul
taneous inquiry in a voice much louder than his own.
“I say, is this right for the Tube station, d’you
know? I’m utterly lost. I want South Ken.”
And by the time O’Reilly had pointed the direction
whence he himself had just come, the man was gone
again, obliterated, swallowed up, not so much as his
footsteps audible, almost as if—it seemed again—he
never had been there at all.
This left an acute unpleasantness in him, a sense of
bewilderment greater than before. He waited five
minutes, not daring to move a step, then tried another
figure, a woman this time, who, luckily, knew the
immediate neighbourhood intimately. She gave him
elaborate instructions in the kindest possible way,
then vanished with incredible swiftness and ease into
the sea of gloom beyond. The instantaneous way she
vanished was disheartening, upsetting: it was so
uncannily abrupt and sudden. Yet she comforted him.
Morley Place, according to her version, was not two
hundred yards from where he stood. He felt his way
forward, step by step, using his cane, crossing a giddy
open space, kicking the kerb with each boot altern
ately, coughing and choking all the time as he did so.
“They were real, I guess, anyway,” he said aloud.
“They were both real enough all right. And it may lift a
bit soon!” He was making a great effort to hold him
self in hand. He was already fighting, that is. He real
ised this perfectly. The only point was—the reality of
the figures. “It may lift now any minute,” he repeated
louder. In spite of the cold, his skin was sweating pro
fusely.
But, of course, it did not lift. The figures, too,
became fewer. No carts were audible. He had followed
the woman’s directions carefully, but now found him
self in some byway, evidently, where pedestrians at the
best of times were rare. There was dull silence all
about him. His foot lost the kerb, his cane swept the
empty air, striking nothing solid, and panic rose upon
him with its shuddering, icy grip. He was alone, he
knew himself alone, worse still—he was in another
open space.
It took him fifteen minutes to cross that open
space, most of the way upon his hands and knees,
oblivious of the icy slime that stained his trousers,
froze his fingers, intent only upon feeling solid sup
port against his back and spine again. It was an end
less period. The moment of collapse was close, the
shriek already rising in his throat, the shaking of the
whole body uncontrollable, when—his outstretched
fingers struck a friendly kerb, and he saw a glimmer
ing patch of diffused radiance overhead. With a great,
quick effort he stood upright, and an instant later his
stick rattled along an area railing. He leaned against
it, breathless, panting, his heart beating painfully
while the street lamp gave him the further comfort of
its feeble gleam, the actual flame, however, invisible.
He looked this way and that; the pavement was deser
ted. He was engulfed in the dark silence of the fog.
But Morley Place, he knew, must be very close by
now. He thought of the friendly little V.A.D. he had
known in France, of a warm bright fire, a cup of tea
and a cigarette. One more effort, he reflected, and all
these would be his. He pluckily groped his way for
ward again, crawling slowly by the area railings. If
things got really bad again, he would ring a bell and
ask for help, much as he shrank from the idea.
Provided he had no more open spaces to cross,
provided he saw no more figures emerging and van
ishing like creatures born of the fog and dwelling
within it as within their native element—it was the
figures he now dreaded more than anything else,
more than even the loneliness—provided the panic
sense—
A faint darkening of the fog beneath the next lamp
caught his eye and made him start. He stopped. It was
not a figure this time, it was the shadow of the pole
grotesquely magnified. No, it moved. It moved
towards him. A flame of fire followed by ice flowed
through him. It was a figure—close against his face. It
was a woman.
The doctor’s advice came suddenly back to him,
the counsel that had cured him of a hundred
phantoms:
“Do not ignore them. Treat them as real. Speak and
go with them. You will soon prove their unreality
then. And they will leave you . . .”
He made a brave, tremendous effort. He was shak
ing. One hand clutched the damp and icy area railing.
“Lost your way like myself, haven’t you, ma’am?” he
said in a voice that trembled. “Do you know where we
are at all? Morley Place
I’
m looking for—”
He stopped dead. The woman moved nearer and
for the first time he saw her face clearly. Its ghastly
pallor, the bright, frightened eyes that stared with a
kind of dazed bewilderment into his own, the beauty,
above all, arrested his speech midway. The woman was
young, her tall figure wrapped in a dark fur coat.
“Can I help you?” he asked impulsively, forgetting
his own terror for the moment. He was more than
startled. Her air of distress and pain stirred a peculiar
anguish in him. For a moment she made no answer,
thrusting her white face closer as if examining him, so
close, indeed, that he controlled with difficulty his
instinct to shrink back a little.
“Where am I?” she asked at length, searching his
eyes intently. “I’m lost—I’ve lost myself. I can’t find my
way back.” Her voice was low, a curious wailing in it
that touched his pity oddly. He felt his own distress
merging in one that was greater.
“Same here,” he replied more confidently. “I’m ter
rified of being alone, too. I’ve had shellshock, you
know. Let’s go together. We’ll find a way together—”
“Who are you?” the woman murmured, still staring
at him with her big bright eyes, their distress, how
ever, no whit lessened. She gazed at him as though
aware suddenly of his presence.
He told her briefly. “And I’m going to tea with a
V.A.D. friend in Morley Place. What’s your address?
Do you know the name of the street?”
She appeared not to hear him, or not to under
stand exactly; it was as if she was not listening again.
“I came out so suddenly, so unexpectedly,” he heard
the low voice with pain in every syllable; “I can’t find
my way home again. Just when I was expecting him
too—” She looked about her with a distraught expres
sion that made O’Reilly long to carry her in his arms
to safety then and there. “He may be there now—wait
ing for me at this very moment—and I can’t get back.”
And so sad was her voice that only by an effort did
O’Reilly prevent himself putting out his hand to touch
her. More and more he forgot himself in his desire to
help her. Her beauty, the wonder of her strange bright
eyes in the pallid face, made an immense appeal. He
became calmer. This woman was real enough. He
asked again the address, the street and number, the
distance she thought it was. “Have you any idea of the
direction, ma’am, any idea at all? We’ll go together
and——”
She suddenly cut him short. She turned her head
as if to listen, so that he saw her profile a moment, the
outline of the slender neck, a glimpse of jewels just
below the fur.
“Hark! I hear him calling! I remember . . . !” And
she was gone from his side into the swirling fog.
Without an instant’s hesitation O’Reilly followed
her, not only because he wished to help, but because
he dared not be left alone. The presence of this
strange, lost woman comforted him; he must not lose
sight of her, whatever happened. He had to run, she
went so rapidly, ever just in front, moving with confid
ence and certainty, turning right and left, crossing the
street, but never stopping, never hesitating, her com
panion always at her heels in breathless haste, and
with a growing terror that he might lose her any
minute. The way she found her direction through the
dense fog was marvellous enough, but O’Reilly’s only
thought was to keep her in sight, lest his own panic
redescend upon him with its inevitable collapse in the
dark and lonely street. It was a wild and panting pur
suit, and he kept her in view with difficulty, a dim
fleeting outline always a few yards ahead of him. She
did not once turn her head, she uttered no sound, no
cry; she hurried forward with unfaltering instinct. Nor
did the chase occur to him once as singular; she was
his safety, and that was all he realized.
One thing, however, he remembered afterwards,
though at the actual time he no more than registered
the detail, paying no attention to it—a definite per
fume she left upon the atmosphere, one, moreover,
that he knew, although he could not find its name as
he ran. It was associated vaguely, for him, with some
thing unpleasant, something disagreeable. He con
nected it with misery and pain. It gave him a feeling of
uneasiness. More than that he did not notice at the
moment, nor could he remember—he certainly did
not try—where he had known this particular scent
before.
Then suddenly the woman stopped, opened a gate
and passed into a small private garden—so suddenly
that O’Reilly, close upon her heels, only just avoided
tumbling into her. “You’ve found it?” he cried. “May I
come in a moment with you? Perhaps you’ll let me
telephone to the doctor?”
She turned instantly. Her face, close against his
own, was livid.
“Doctor!” she repeated in an awful whisper. The
word meant terror to her. O’Reilly stood amazed. For a
second or two neither of them moved. The woman
seemed petrified.
“Dr. Henry, you know,” he stammered, finding his
tongue again. “I’m in his care. He’s in Harley Street.”
Her face cleared as suddenly as it had darkened,
though the original expression of bewilderment and
pain still hung in her great eyes. But the terror left
them, as though she suddenly forgot some association
that had revived it.
“My home,” she murmured. “My home is some
where here. I’m near it. I must get back—in time—for
him. I must. He’s coming to me.” And with these
extraordinary words she turned, walked up the narrow
path, and stood upon the porch of a two-storey house
before her companion had recovered from his aston
ishment sufficiently to move or utter a syllable in
reply. The front door, he saw, was ajar. It had been left
open.
For five seconds, perhaps for ten, he hesitated; it
was the fear that the door would close and shut him
out that brought the decision to his will and muscles.
He ran up the steps and followed the woman into a
dark hall where she had already preceded him, and
amid whose blackness she now had finally vanished.
He closed the door, not knowing exactly why he did
so, and knew at once by an instinctive feeling that the
house he now found himself in with this unknown
woman was empty and unoccupied. In a house, how
ever, he felt safe. It was the open streets that were his
danger. He stood waiting, listening a moment before
he spoke; and he heard the woman moving down the
passage from door to door, repeating to herself in her
low voice of unhappy wailing some words he could
not understand:
“Where is it? Oh, where is it? I must get back...”
O’Reilly then found himself abruptly stricken with
dumbness, as though, with these strange words, a
haunting terror came up and breathed against him in
the darkness.
“Is she after all a figure?” ran in letters of fire across
his numbed brain. “Is she unreal—or real?”
Seeking relief in action of some kind he put out a
hand automatically, feeling along the wall for an elec
tric switch, and though he found it by some miracu
lous chance, no answering glow responded to the
click.
And the woman’s voice from the darkness: “Ah! Ah!
At last I’ve found it. I’m home again—at last . . . !” He
heard a door open and close upstairs. He was on the
ground floor now—alone. Complete silence followed.
In the conflict of various emotions—fear for him
self lest his panic should return, fear for the woman
who had led him into this empty house and now
deserted him upon some mysterious errand of her
own that made him think of madness—in this con
flict that held him a moment spellbound, there was a
yet bigger ingredient demanding instant explanation,
but an explanation that he could not find. Was the
woman real or was she unreal? Was she a human
being or a “figure”? The horror of doubt obsessed him
with an acute uneasiness that betrayed itself in a
return of that unwelcome inner trembling he knew
was dangerous.
What saved him from a
crise
that must have had
most dangerous results for his mind and nervous sys
tem generally, seems to have been the outstanding
fact that he felt more for the woman than for himself.
His sympathy and pity had been deeply moved; her
voice, her beauty, her anguish and bewilderment, all
uncommon, inexplicable, mysterious, formed
together a claim that drove self into the background.
Added to this was the detail that she had left him,
gone to another floor without a word, and now,
behind a closed door in a room upstairs, found herself
face to face at last with the unknown object of her
frantic search— with “it,” whatever “it” might be. Real
or unreal, figure or human being, the overmastering
impulse of his being was that he must go to her.
It was this clear impulse that gave him decision and
energy to do what he then did. He struck a match, he
found a stump of candle, he made his way by means
of this flickering light along he passage and up the
carpetless stairs. He moved cautiously, stealthily,
though not knowing why he did so. The house, he
now saw, was indeed untenanted; dust-sheets covered
the piled-up furniture; he glimpsed, through doors
ajar, pictures screened upon the walls, brackets
draped to look like hooded heads. He went on slowly,
steadily, moving on tiptoe as though conscious of
being watched, noting the well of darkness in the hall
below, the grotesque shadows that his movements
cast on walls and ceiling. The silence was unpleasant,
yet, remembering hat the woman was “expecting”
someone, he did not wish it broken. He reached the
landing and stood still. Closed doors on both sides of
a corridor met his sight, as he shaded the candle to
examine the scene. Behind which of these doors, he
asked himself, was the woman, figure or human
being, now alone with “it”.
There was nothing to guide him, but an instinct
that he must not delay sent him forward again upon
his search. He tried a door on the right—an empty
room, with the furniture hidden by dustsheets, and
the mattress rolled up on the bed. He tried second
door, leaving the first one open behind him, and it
was, similarly, an empty bedroom. Coming out into
the corridor again he stood a moment waiting, then
called aloud in a low voice that yet woke echoes
unpleasantly in the hall below: “Where are you? I
want to help—which room are you in?”
There was no answer; he was almost glad he heard
no sound, he knew quite well that he was waiting
really for another sound—the steps of him who was
“expected.” And the idea of meeting with this
unknown third sent a shudder through him, as
though related to an interview he dreaded with his
whole heart, and must at all costs avoid. Waiting
another moment or two, he noted that his candles
tump was burning low, then crossed the landing with
a feeling, at once of hesitation and determination,
towards a door opposite to him. He opened it; he did
not halt on the threshold. Holding the candle at arm’s
length, he went boldly in.
And instantly his nostrils told him he was right at
last, for a whiff of the strange perfume, though this
time much stronger than before, greeted him, sending
a new quiver along his nerves. He knew now why it
was associated with unpleasantness, with pain, with
misery, for he recognised it—the odour of a hospital.
In this room a powerful anaesthetic had been used—
and recently.

Simultaneously with smell, sight brought its mes
sage too. On the large double bed behind the door on
his right lay, to his amazement, the woman in the dark
fur coat. He saw the jewels on the slender neck; but
the eyes he did not see, for they were closed—closed
too, he grasped at once, in death. The body lay
stretched at full length, quite motionless. He
approached. A dark thin streak that came from the
parted lips and passed downwards over the chin, los
ing itself then in the fur collar, was a trickle of blood.
It was hardly dry. It glistened.
Strange it was perhaps that, while imaginary fears
had the power to paralyse him, mind and body, this
sight of something real had the effect of restoring
confidence. The sight of blood and death, amid condi
tions often ghastly and even monstrous, was no new
thing to him. He went up quietly, and with steady
hand he felt the woman’s cheek, the warmth of recent
life still in its softness. The final cold had not yet
mastered this empty form whose beauty, in its perfect
stillness, had taken on the new strange sweetness of
an unearthly bloom. Pallid, silent, untenanted, it lay
before him, lit by the flicker of his guttering candle.
He lifted the fur coat to feel for the unbeating heart. A
couple of hours ago at most, he judged, this heart was
working busily, the breath came through those parted
lips, the eyes were shining in full beauty. His hand
encountered a hard knob—the head of a long steel
hat-pin driven through the heart up to its hilt.
He knew then which was the figure—which was
the real and which the unreal. He knew also what had
been meant by “it.”
But before he could think or reflect what action he
must take, before he could straighten himself even
from his bent position over the body on the bed, there
sounded through the empty house below the loud
clang of the front door being closed. And instantly
rushed over him that other fear he had so long forgot
ten—fear for himself. The panic of his own shaken
nerves descended with irresistible onslaught. He
turned, extinguishing the candle in the violent trem
bling of his hand, and tore headlong from the room.
The following ten minutes seemed a nightmare in
which he was not master of himself and knew not
exactly what he did. All he realized was that steps
already sounded on the stairs, coming quickly nearer.
The flicker of an electric torch played on the banis
ters, whose shadows ran swiftly sideways along the
wall as the hand that held the light ascended. He
thought in a frenzied second of police, of his presence
in the house, of the murdered woman. It was a sinister
combination. Whatever happened, he must escape
without being so much as even seen. His heart raced
madly. He darted across the landing into the room
opposite, whose door he had luckily left open. Arid by
some incredible chance, apparently, he was neither
seen nor heard by the man who, a moment later,
reached the landing, entered the room where the
body of the woman lay, and closed the door carefully
behind him.
Shaking, scarcely daring to breathe lest his breath
be audible, O’Reilly, in the grip of his own personal
terror, remnant of his uncured shock of war, had no
thought of what duty might demand or not demand
of him. He thought only of himself. He realized one
clear issue—that he must get out of the house without
being heard or seen. Who the new-comer was he did
not know, beyond an uncanny assurance that it was
not
he whom the woman had “expected,” but the mur
derer himself, and that it was the murderer, in his
turn, who was expecting this third person. In that
room with death at his elbow, a death he had himself
brought about but an hour or two ago, the murderer
now hid in waiting for his second victim. And the
door was closed.
Yet any minute it might open again, cutting off
retreat.
O’Reilly crept out, stole across the landing, reached
the head of the stairs, and began, with the utmost
caution, the perilous descent. Each time the bare
boards creaked beneath his weight, no matter how
stealthily this weight was adjusted, his heart missed a
beat. He tested each step before he pressed upon it,
distributing as much of his weight as he dared upon
the banisters. It was a little more than halfway down
that, to his horror, his foot caught in a projecting car
pet tack; he slipped on the polished wood, and only
saved himself from falling headlong by a wild clutch
at the railing, making an uproar that seemed to him
like the explosion of a hand-grenade in the forgotten
trenches. His nerves gave way then, and panic seized
him. In the silence that followed the resounding
echoes he heard the bedroom door opening on the
floor above.
Concealment was now useless. It was impossible,
too. He took the last flight of stairs in a series of leaps,
four steps at a time, reached the hall, flew across it,
and opened the front door, just as his pursuer, electric
torch in hand, covered half the stairs behind him.
Slamming the door, he plunged headlong into the
welcome, all-obscuring fog outside.
The fog had now no terrors for him, he welcomed
its concealing mantle; nor did it matter in which dir
ection he ran so long as he put distance between him
and the house of death. The pursuer had, of course,
not followed him into the street. He crossed open
spaces without a tremor. He ran in a circle neverthe
less, though without being aware he did so. No people
were about, no single groping shadow passed him, no
boom of traffic reached his ears, when he paused for
breath at length against an area railing. Then for the
first time he made the discovery that he had no hat.
He remembered now. In examining the body, partly
out of respect, partly perhaps unconsciously, he had
taken it off and laid it—on the very bed.
It was there, a telltale bit of damning evidence, in
the house of death. And a series of probable con
sequences flashed through his mind like lightning. It
was a new hat fortunately; more fortunate still, he had
not yet written name or initials in it; but the maker’s
mark was there for all to read, and the police would go
immediately to the shop where he had bought it only
two days before. Would the shop-people remember
his appearance? Would his visit, the date, the conver
sation be recalled? He thought it was unlikely; he
resembled dozens of men; he had no outstanding
peculiarity. He tried to think, but his mind was con
fused and troubled, his heart was beating dreadfully,
he felt desperately ill. He sought vainly for some story
to account for his being out in the fog and far from
home without a hat. No single idea presented itself.
He clung to the icy railings, hardly able to keep
upright, collapse very near—when suddenly a figure
emerged from the fog, paused a moment to stare at
him, put out a hand and caught him, and then spoke.
“You’re ill, my dear sir,” said a man’s kindly voice.
“Can I be of any assistance? Come, let me help you.”
He had seen at once that it was not a case of drunken
ness. “Come, take my arm, won’t you? I’m a physician.
Luckily, too, you are just outside my very house. Come
in.” And he half dragged, half pushed O’Reilly, now
bordering on collapse, up the steps and opened the
door with his latch-key.
“Felt ill suddenly—lost in the fog . . . terrified, but
be all right soon, thanks awfully—” the Canadian
stammered his gratitude, already feeling better. He
sank into a chair in the hall, while the other put down
a paper parcel he had been carrying, and led him
presently into a comfortable room; a fire burned
brightly; the electric lamps were pleasantly shaded; a
decanter of whisky and a siphon stood on a small
table beside a big armchair; and before O’Reilly could
find another word to say the other had poured him
out a glass and bade him sip it slowly, without troub
-
ling to talk till he felt better.
“That will revive you. Better drink it slowly. You
should never have been out a night like this. If you’ve
far to go, better let me put you up—
“Very kind, very kind, indeed,” mumbled O’Reilly,
recovering rapidly in the comfort of a presence he
already liked and felt even drawn to.
“No trouble at all,” returned the doctor. “I’ve been
at the front, you know. I can see what your trouble is
—shellshock, I’ll be bound.”
The Canadian, much impressed by the other’s
quick diagnosis, noted also his tact and kindness. He
had made no reference to the absence of a hat, for
instance.
“Quite true,” he said. “I’m with Dr. Henry, in Harley
Street,” and he added a few words about his case. The
whisky worked its effect, he revived more and more,
feeling better every minute. The other handed him a
cigarette; they began to talk about his symptoms and
recovery; confidence returned in a measure, though
he still felt badly frightened. The doctor’s manner and
personality did much to help, for there was strength
and gentleness in the face, though the features
showed unusual determination, softened occasionally
by a sudden hint as of suffering in the bright, compel
ling eyes. It was the face, thought O’Reilly, of a man
who had seen much and probably been through hell,
but of a man who was simple, good, sincere. Yet not a
man to trifle with; behind his gentleness lay some
thing very stern. This effect of character and personal
ity woke the other’s respect in addition to his gratit
ude. His sympathy was stirred.
“You encourage me to make another guess,” the
man was saying, after a successful reading of the
impromptu patient’s state, “that you have had,
namely, a severe shock quite recently, and”—he hesit
ated for the merest fraction of a second—“that it
would be a relief to you,” he went on, the skilful sug
gestion in the voice unnoticed by his companion, “it
would be wise as well. If you could unburden yourself
to—someone—who would understand.” He looked at
O’Reilly with a kindly and very pleasant smile. “Am I
not right, perhaps?” he asked in his gentle tone.
“Someone who would understand,” repeated the
Canadian. “That’s my trouble exactly. You’ve hit it. It’s
all so incredible.”
The other smiled. “The more incredible,” he sug
gested, “the greater your need for expression. Suppres
sion, as you may know, is dangerous in cases like this.
You think you have hidden it, but it bides its time and
comes up later, causing a lot of trouble. Confession,
you know”—he emphasized the word—“confession is
good for the soul!”
“You’re dead right,” agreed the other.
“Now, if you can, bring yourself to tell it to
someone who will listen and believe—to myself, for
instance. I am a doctor, familiar with such things. I
shall regard all you say as a professional confidence, of
course; and, as we are strangers, my belief or disbelief
is of no particular consequence. I may tell you in
advance of your story, however—I think I can promise
it—that I shall believe all you have to say.”
O’Reilly told his story without more ado, for the
suggestion of the skilled physician had found easy soil
to work in. During the recital his host’s eyes never
once left his own. He moved no single muscle of his
body. His interest seemed intense.
“A bit tall, isn’t it?” said the Canadian, when his
tale was finished. “And the question is—” he contin
ued with a threat of volubility which the other
checked instantly.
“Strange, yes, but incredible, no,” the doctor inter
rupted. “I see no reason to disbelieve a single detail of
what you have just told me. Things equally remark
able, equally incredible, happen in all large towns, as I
know from personal experience. I could give you
instances.” He paused a moment, but his companion,
staring into his eyes with interest and curiosity, made
no comment. “Some years ago, in fact,” continued the
other, “I knew of a very similar case—strangely sim
ilar.”
“Really! I should be immensely interested—”
“So similar that it seems almost a coincidence.
You
may find it hard, in your turn, to credit it.” He paused
again, while O’Reilly sat forward in his chair to listen.
“Yes,” pursued the doctor slowly, “I think everyone
connected with it is now dead. There is no reason why
I should not tell it, for one confidence deserves
another, you know. It happened during the Boer War
—as long ago as that,” he added with emphasis. “It is
really a very commonplace story in one way, though
very dreadful in another, but a man who has served at
the front will understand and—I’m sure—will sym
pathize.”
“I’m sure of that,” offered the other readily.
“A colleague of mine, now dead, as I mentioned—a
surgeon, with a big practice, married a young and
charming girl. They lived happily together for several
years. His wealth made her very comfortable. His con
sulting room, I must tell you, was some distance from
his house—just as this might be—so that she was
never bothered with any of his cases. Then came the
war. Like many others, though much over age, he
volunteered. He gave up his lucrative practice and
went to South Africa. His income, of course, stopped;
the big house was closed; his wife found her life of
enjoyment considerably curtailed. This she considered
a great hardship, it seems. She felt a bitter grievance
against him. Devoid of imagination, without any
power of sacrifice, a selfish type, she was yet a beauti
ful, attractive woman—and young. The inevitable
lover came upon the scene to console her. They
planned to run away together. He was rich. Japan they
thought would suit them. Only, by some ill luck, the
husband got wind of it and arrived in London just in
the nick of time.”
“Well rid of her,” put in O’Reilly, “
I
think.”
The doctor waited a moment. He sipped his glass.
Then his eyes fixed upon his companion’s face some
what sternly.
“Well rid of her, yes,” he continued, “only he
determined to make that riddance final. He decided
to kill her—and her lover. You see, he loved her.”
O’Reilly made no comment. In his own country
this method with a faithless woman was not
unknown. His interest was very concentrated. But he
was thinking, too, as he listened, thinking hard.
“He planned the time and place with care,”
resumed the other in a lower voice, as though he
might possibly be overheard. “They met, he knew, in
the big house, now closed, the house where he and his
young wife had passed such happy years during their
prosperity. The plan failed, however, in an important
detail—the woman came at the appointed hour, but
without her lover. She found death waiting for her—it
was a painless death. Then her lover, who was to arrive
half an hour later, did not come at all. The door had
been left open for him purposely. The house was dark,
its rooms shut up, deserted; there was no caretaker
even. It was a foggy night—just like this.”
“And the other?” asked O’Reilly in a failing voice.
“The lover—”
“A man did come in,” the doctor went on calmly,
“but it was not the lover. It was a stranger.”
“A stranger?” the other whispered. “And the sur
geon—where was he all the time?”
“Waiting outside to see him enter—concealed in
the fog. He saw the man go in. Five minutes later he
followed, meaning to complete his vengeance, his act
of justice, whatever you like to call it. But the man
who had come in was a stranger—he came in by
chance—just as you might have done—to shelter from
the fog—or—”
O’Reilly, though with a great effort, rose abruptly to
his feet. He had an appalling feeling that the man
facing him was mad. He had a keen desire to get out
side, fog or no fog, to leave this room, to escape from
the calm accents of this insistent voice. The effect of
the whisky was still in his blood. He felt no lack of
confidence. But words came to him with difficulty.
“I think I’d better be pushing off now, doctor,” he
said clumsily. “But I feel I must thank you very much
for all your kindness and help.” He turned and looked
hard into the keen eyes facing him. “Your friend,” he
asked in a whisper, “the surgeon—I hope—I mean,
was he ever caught?”
“No,” was the grave reply, the doctor standing up in
front of him, “he was never caught.”
O’Reilly waited a moment before he made another
remark. “Well,” he said at length, but in a louder tone
than before, “I think—I’m glad.” He went to the door
without shaking hands.
“You have no hat,” mentioned the voice behind
him. “If you’ll wait a moment I’ll get you one of mine.
You need not trouble to return it.” And the doctor
passed him, going into the hall. There was a sound of
tearing paper. O’Reilly left the house a moment later
with a hat upon his head, but it was not till he
reached the Tube station half an hour afterwards that
he realized it was his own.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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