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).

Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch: Mutual Exchange, Limited

Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, Mutual Exchange, Limited, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Italo Calvino, Leggenda di Carlomagno, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Science Fiction Short Stories, Historias de ciencia ficcion


CHAPTER I.

Millionaire though he was, Mr Markham (_nee_ Markheim) never let a small opportunity slip. To be sure the enforced idleness of Atlantic crossing bored him and kept him restless; it affected him with _malaise_ to think that for these five days, while the solitude of ocean swallowed him, men on either shore, with cables at their command, were using them to get rich on their own account--it might even be at his expense. The first day out from New York he had spent in his cabin, immersed in correspondence. Having dealt with this and exhausted it, on the second, third, and fourth days he found nothing to do. He never played cards; he eschewed all acquaintance with his fellow men except in the way of business; he had no vanity, and to be stared at on the promenade deck because of the fame of his wealth merely annoyed him. On the other hand, he had not the smallest excuse to lock himself up in his stuffy state-room. He enjoyed fresh air, and had never been sea-sick in his life.

It was just habit--the habit of never letting a chance go, or the detail of a chance--that on the fourth morning carried him the length of the liner, to engage in talk with the fresh-coloured young third officer busy on the high deck forward.

'A young man, exposed as you are, ought to insure himself,' said Mr Markham.

The third officer--by name Dick Rendal--knew something of the inquisitiveness and idle ways of passengers. This was his fifth trip in the _Carnatic_. He took no truck in passengers beyond showing them the patient politeness enjoined by the Company's rules. He knew nothing of Mr Markham, who dispensed with the services of a valet and dressed with a shabbiness only pardonable in the extremely rich. Mr Markham, 'the Insurance King,' had arrayed himself this morning in gray flannel, with a reach-me-down overcoat, cloth cap, and carpet slippers that betrayed his flat, Jewish instep. Dick Rendal sized him up for an insurance tout; but behaved precisely as he would have behaved on better information. He refrained from ordering the intruder aft; but eyed him less than amiably--being young, keen on his ship, and just now keen on his job.

'I saw you yesterday,' said Mr Markham. (It had blown more than half a gale, and late in the afternoon three heavy seas had come aboard. The third officer at this moment was employed with half a dozen seamen in repairing damages.) 'I was watching. As I judged, it was the nicest miss you weren't overboard. Over and above employers' liability you should insure. The Hands Across Mutual Exchange-- that's your office.'

Mr Markham leaned back, and put a hand up to his inner breast-pocket--it is uncertain whether for his cigar-case, or for some leaflet relating to the Hands Across.


'Take care, sir!' said the third officer sharply. 'That stanchion--'

He called too late. The hand as it touched the breast-pocket, shot up and clawed at the air. With a voice that was less a cry than a startled grunt, Mr Markham pitched backwards off the fore-deck into the sea.

The third officer stared for just a fraction of a second; ran, seized a life-belt as the liner's length went shooting past; and hurled it-- with pretty good aim, too--almost before a man of his working party had time to raise the cry of 'Man overboard!' Before the alarm reached the bridge, he had kicked off his shoes; and the last sound in his ears as he dived was the ping of the bell ringing down to the engine-room--a thin note, infinitely distant, speaking out of an immense silence.



CHAPTER II.


It was a beautifully clean dive; but in the flurry of the plunge the third officer forgot for an instant the right upward slant of the palms, and went a great way deeper than he had intended. By the time he rose to the surface the liner had slid by, and for a moment or two he saw nothing; for instinctively he came up facing aft, towards the spot where Mr Markham had fallen, and the long sea running after yesterday's gale threw up a ridge that seemed to take minutes--though in fact it took but a few seconds--to sink and heave up the trough beyond. By-and-by a life-belt swam up into sight; then another--at least a dozen had been flung; and beyond these at length, on the climbing crest of the swell two hundred yards away, the head and shoulders of Mr Markham. By great good luck the first life-belt had fallen within a few feet of him, and Mr Markham had somehow managed to get within reach and clutch it--a highly creditable feat when it is considered that he was at best a poor swimmer, that the fall had knocked more than half the breath out of his body, that he had swallowed close on a pint of salt water, and that a heavy overcoat impeded his movements. But after this fair first effort Mr Markham, as his clothes weighed him down, began--as the phrase is--to make very bad weather of it. He made worse and worse weather of it as Dick Rendal covered the distance between them with a superlatively fine side-stroke, once or twice singing out to him to hold on, and keep a good heart. Mr Markham, whether he heard or no, held on with great courage, and even coolness--up to a point. Then of a sudden his nerve deserted him. He loosed his hold of the life-belt, and struck out for his Rescuer. Worse, as he sank in the effort and Dick gripped him, he closed and struggled. For half a minute Dick, shaking free of the embrace--and this only by striking him on the jaw and half stunning him as they rose on the crest of a swell--was able to grip him by the collar and drag him within reach of the life-belt. But here the demented man managed to wreathe his legs and arms in another and more terrible hold. The pair of them were now cursing horribly, cursing whenever a wave left choking them, and allowed them to cough and sputter for breath. They fought as two men whose lives had pent up an unmitigable hate for this moment. They fought, neither losing his hold, as their strength ebbed, and the weight of their clothes dragged them lower. Dick Rendal's hand still clutched the cord of the life-belt, but both bodies were under water, fast locked, when the liner's boat at length reached the spot. They were hauled on board, as on a long line you haul a fish with a crab fastened upon him; and were laid in the stern-sheets, where their grip was with some difficulty loosened.

It may have happened in the struggle. Or again it may have happened when they were hoisted aboard and lay, for a minute or so, side by side on the deck. Both men were insensible; so far gone indeed that the doctor looked serious as he and his helpers began to induce artificial respiration.

The young third officer 'came round' after five minutes of this; but, strangely enough, in the end he was found to be suffering from a severer shock than Mr Markham, on whom the doctor operated for a full twenty minutes before a flutter of the eyelids rewarded him. They were carried away--the third officer, in a state of collapse, to his modest berth; Mr Markham to his white-and-gold deck-cabin. On his way thither Mr Markham protested cheerily that he saw no reason for all this fuss; he was as right now, or nearly as right, as the Bank.




CHAPTER III.


How's Rendal getting on?'

Captain Holditch, skipper of the _Carnatic_, put this question next morning to the doctor, and was somewhat surprised by the answer.

'Oh, Rendal's all right. That is to say, he will be all right. Just now he's suffering from shock. My advice--supposing, of course, you can spare him--is to pack him straightaway off to his people on a week's leave. In a week he'll be fit as a fiddle.' The doctor paused and added, ''Wish I could feel as easy about the millionaire.'

'Why, what's the matter with him? 'Struck me he pulled round wonderfully, once you'd brought him to. He talked as cheery as a grig.

'H'm--yes,' said the doctor; 'he has been talking like that ever since, only he hasn't been talking sense. Calls me names for keeping him in bed, and wants to get out and repair that stanchion. I told him it was mended. "Nothing on earth is the matter with me," he insisted, till I had to quiet him down with bromide. By the way, did you send off any account of the accident?'

'By wireless? No; I took rather particular pains to stop that--gets into the papers, only frightens the family and friends, who conclude things to be ten times worse than they are. Plenty of time at Southampton. Boat-express'll take him home ahead of the scare?'

'Lives in Park Lane, doesn't he?--that big corner house like a game-pie? . . . Ye-es, you were thoughtful, as usual. . . . Only some one might have been down to the docks to meet him. 'Wish I knew his doctor's address. Well, never mind--I'll fix him up so that he reaches Park Lane, anyway.'

'He ought to do something for Rendal,' mused Captain Holditch.

'He will, you bet, when his head is right--that's if a millionaire's head is ever right,' added the doctor, who held radical opinions on the distribution of wealth.

The captain ignored this. He never talked politics even when ashore.

'As plucky a rescue as ever I witnessed,' he answered the doctor. 'Yes, of course, I'll spare the lad. Slip a few clothes into his bag, and tell him he can get off by the first train. Oh, and by the way, you might ask him if he's all right for money; say he can draw on me if he wants any.'

The doctor took his message down to Dick Rendal; 'We're this moment passing Hurst Castle,' he announced cheerfully, 'and you may tumble out if you like. But first I'm to pack a few clothes for you; if you let me, I'll do it better than the steward. Shore-going clothes, my boy--where do you keep your cabin trunk? Eh? Suit-case, is it?-- best leather, nickel locks--no, silver, as I'm a sinner! Hallo, my young friend!'--here the doctor looked up, mischief in his eye-- 'You never struck me as that sort of dude; and fathers and mothers don't fit their offspring out with silver locks to their suit-cases-- or they've altered since my time. Well, you'll enjoy your leave all the better; and give her my congratulations. The Old Man says you may get off as soon as we're docked, and stay home till you've recovered. I dare say it won't be long before you feel better,' he wound up, with a glance at the suit-case.

'The Old Man? Yes--yes--Captain Holditch, of course,' muttered Dick from his berth.

The doctor looked at him narrowly for a moment; but, when he spoke again, kept by intention the same easy rattling tone.

'Decent of him, eh?--Yes, and by the way, he asked me to tell you that, if you shouldn't happen to be flush of money just now, that needn't hinder you five minutes. He'll be your banker, and make it right with the Board.'

Dick lay still for half a dozen seconds, as though the words took that time in reaching him. Then he let out a short laugh from somewhere high on his nose.

'My banker? Will he? Good Lord!'

'May be,' said the doctor, dryly; laying out a suit of mufti at the foot of the bed, 'the Old Man and I belong to the same date. I've heard that youngsters save money nowadays. But when I was your age that sort of offer would have hit the mark nine times out of ten.'

He delivered this as a parting shot. Dick, lying on his back and staring up at a knot in the woodwork over his bunk, received it placidly. Probably he did not hear. His brow was corrugated in a frown, as though he were working out a sum or puzzling over some problem. The doctor closed the door softly, and some minutes later paid a visit to Mr Markham, whom he found stretched on the couch of the white-and-gold deck-cabin, attired in a gray flannel sleeping-suit, and wrapped around the legs with a travelling rug of dubious hue.

'That's a good deal better,' he said cheerfully, after an examination, in which, while seeming to be occupied with pulses and temperature, he paid particular attention to the pupils of Mr Markham's eyes. 'We are nosing up the Solent fast--did you know it? Ten minutes ought to see us in Southampton Water; and I suppose you'll be wanting to catch the first train.'

'I wonder,' said Mr Markham vaguely, 'if the Old Man will mind.'

The doctor stared for a moment. 'I think we may risk it,' he said, after a pause; 'though I confess that, last night, I was doubtful. Of course, if you're going to be met, it's right enough.'

'Why should I be met?'

'Well, you see--I couldn't know, could I? Anyway, you ought to see your own doctor as soon as you get home. Perhaps, if you gave me his name, I might scribble a note to him, just to say what has happened. Even big-wigs, you know, don't resent being helped with a little information.'

Mr Markham stared. 'Lord!' said he, 'you're talking as if I kept a tame doctor! Why, man, I've never been sick nor sorry since I went to school.'

'That's not hard to believe. I've ausculted you--sound as a bell, you are: constitution strong as a horse's. Still, a shock is a shock. You've a family doctor, I expect--some one you ring up when your liver goes wrong, and you want to be advised to go to Marienbad or some such place--I'd feel easier if I could shift the responsibility on to him.'

Still Mr Markham stared. 'I've heard about enough of this shock to my system,' said he at length. 'But have it your own way. If you want me to recommend a doctor, my mother swears by an old boy in Craven Street, Strand. I don't know the number, but his name's Leadbetter, and he's death on croup.'

'Craven Street? That's a trifle off Park Lane, isn't it?--Still, Leadbetter, you say? I'll get hold of the directory, look up his address, and drop him a note or two on the case by this evening's post.


A couple of hours later Mr Markham and Dick Rendal almost rubbed shoulders in the crowd of passengers shaking hands with the ever polite Captain Holditch, and bidding the _Carnatic_ good-bye with the usual parting compliments; but in the hurry and bustle no one noted that the pair exchanged neither word nor look of recognition. The skipper gave Dick an honest clap on the shoulder. 'Doctor's fixed you up, then? That's right. Make the best of your holiday, and I'll see that the Board does you justice,' and with that, turned away for more hand-shaking. One small thing he did remark. When it came to Mr Markham's turn, that gentleman, before extending a hand, lifted it to his forehead and gravely saluted. But great men--as Captain Holditch knew--have their eccentric ways.

Nor was it remarked, when the luggage came to be sorted out and put on board the boat express, that Dick's porter under his direction collected and wheeled off Mr Markham's; while Mr Markham picked up Dick's suit-case, walked away with it unchallenged to a third-class smoking compartment and deposited it on the rack. There were three other passengers in the compartment. 'Good Lord!' ejaculated one, as the millionaire stepped out to purchase an evening paper. 'Isn't that Markham? Well!--and travelling third!' 'Saving habit-- second nature,' said another. 'That's the way to get rich, my boy.'

Meanwhile Dick, having paid for four places, and thereby secured a first-class solitude, visited the telegraph office, and shrank the few pounds in his pocket by sending a number of cablegrams.

On the journey up Mr Markham took some annoyance from the glances of his fellow-passengers. They were furtive, almost reverential, and this could only be set down to his exploit of yesterday. He thanked Heaven they forbore to talk of it.



CHAPTER IV.


In the back-parlour of a bookseller's shop, between the Strand and the Embankment, three persons sat at tea; the proprietor of the shop, a gray little man with round spectacles and bushy eyebrows, his wife, and a pretty girl of twenty or twenty-one. The girl apparently was a visitor, for she wore her hat, and her jacket lay across the arm of an old horsehair sofa that stood against the wall in the lamp's half shadow; and yet the gray little bookseller and his little Dresden-china wife very evidently made no stranger of her. They talked, all three, as members of a family talk, when contented and affectionate; at haphazard, taking one another for granted, not raising their voices.

The table was laid for a fourth; and by-and-by they heard him coming through the shop--in a hurry too. The old lady, always sensitive to the sound of her boy's footsteps, looked up almost in alarm, but the girl half rose from her chair, her eyes eager.

'I know,' she said breathlessly. 'Jim has heard--'

'Chrissy here? That's right.' A young man broke into the room, and stood waving a newspaper. 'The _Carnatic's_ arrived--here it is under "Stop Press"--I bought the paper as I came by Somerset House-- "_Carnatic_ arrived at Southampton 3.45 this afternoon. Her time from Sandy Hook, 5 days, 6 hours, 45 minutes."

'Then she hasn't broken the record this time, though Dick was positive she would,' put in the old lady. During the last six months she had developed a craze for Atlantic records, and knew the performances of all the great liners by heart.

'You bad little mother!'--Jim wagged a forefinger at her. 'You don't deserve to hear another word.'

'Is there any more?'

'More? Just you listen to this--"Reports heroic rescue. Yesterday afternoon Mr Markham, the famous Insurance King, accidentally fell overboard from fore deck, and was gallantly rescued by a young officer named Kendal"--you bet that's a misprint for Rendal--error in the wire, perhaps--we'll get a later edition after tea--"who leapt into the sea and swam to the sinking millionaire, supporting him until assistance arrived. Mr Markham had by this afternoon recovered sufficiently to travel home by the Boat Express." There, see for yourselves!'

Jim spread the newspaper on the table.

'But don't they say anything about Dick?' quavered the mother, fumbling with her glasses, while Miss Chrissy stared at the print with shining eyes.

'Dick's not a millionaire, mother--though it seems he has been supporting one--for a few minutes anyway. Well, Chrissy, how does that make you feel?'

'You see, my dear,' said the little bookseller softly, addressing his wife, 'if any harm had come to the boy, they would have reported it for certain.'

They talked over the news while Jim ate his tea, and now and again interrupted with his mouth full; talked over it and speculated upon it in low, excited tones, which grew calmer by degrees. But still a warm flush showed on the cheeks of both the women, and the little bookseller found it necessary to take out his handkerchief at intervals and wipe his round spectacles.

He was wiping them perhaps for the twentieth time, and announcing that he must go and relieve his assistant in the shop, when the assistant's voice was heard uplifted close outside--as it seemed, in remonstrance with a customer.

'Hallo!' said the little bookseller, and was rising from his chair, when the door opened. A middle-aged, Jewish-looking man, wrapped to the chin in a shabby ulster and carrying a suit-case, stood on the threshold, and regarded the little party.

'Mother!' cried Mr Markham. 'Chrissy!'

He set down the suit-case and took two eager strides. Old Mrs. Rendal, the one immediately menaced, shrank back into Jim's arms as he started up with his throat working to bolt a mouthful of cake. Chrissy caught her breath.

'Who in thunder are you, sir?' demanded Jim.

'Get out of this, unless you want to be thrown out!'

'Chrissy!' again appealed Mr Markham, but in a fainter voice. He had come to a standstill, and his hand went slowly up to his forehead.

Chrissy pointed to the suit-case. 'It's--it's Dick's!' she gasped. Jim did not hear.

'Mr Wenham,' he said to the white-faced assistant in the doorway; 'will you step out, please, and fetch a policeman?'

'Excuse me.' Mr Markham took his hand slowly from his face, and spread it behind him, groping as he stepped backwards to the door. 'I--I am not well, I think'--he spoke precisely, as though each word as it came had to be held and gripped. 'The address'--here he turned on Chrissy with a vague, apologetic smile--'faces--clear in my head. Mistake--I really beg your pardon.'

'Get him some brandy, Jim,' said the little bookseller. 'The gentleman is ill, whoever he is.'

But Mr Markham turned without another word, and lurched past the assistant, who flattened himself against a bookshelf to give him room. Jim followed him through the shop; saw him cross the doorstep and turn away down the pavement to the left; stared in his wake until the darkness and the traffic swallowed him; and returned, softly whistling, to the little parlour.

'Drunk's the simplest explanation,' he announced.

'But how did he know my name?' demanded Chrissy. 'And the suit-case!'

'Eh?' He's left it--well, if this doesn't beat the band!--Here, Wenham nip after the man and tell him he left his luggage behind!' Jim stooped to lift the case by the handle.

'But it's Dick's!'

'Dick's?'

'It's the suit-case I gave him--my birthday present last April. See, there are his initials!'



CHAPTER V.


Dick Rendal, alighting at Waterloo, collected his luggage--or rather, Mr Markham's--methodically; saw it hoisted on a four-wheeler; and, handing the cabby two shillings, told him to deliver it at an address in Park Lane, where the butler would pay him his exact fare. This done, he sought the telegraph office and sent three more cablegrams, the concise wording of which he had carefully evolved on the way up from Southampton. These do not come into the story,--which may digress, however, so far as to tell that on receipt of one of them, the Vice-President of the Hands Across Central New York Office remarked to his secretary 'that the old warrior was losing no time. Leisure and ozone would appear to have bucked him up.' To which the secretary answered that it was lucky for civilisation if Mr Markham missed suspecting, or he'd infallibly make a corner in both.

Having despatched his orders, Dick Rendal felt in his pockets for a cigar-case; was annoyed and amused (in a sub-conscious sort of way) to find only a briar pipe and a pocketful of coarse-cut tobacco; filled and lit his pipe, and started to walk.

His way led him across Westminster Bridge, up through Whitehall, and brought him to the steps of that building which, among all the great London clubs, most exorbitantly resembles a palace. He mounted its perron with the springy confident step of youth; and that same spring and confidence of gait carried him past the usually vigilant porter. A marble staircase led him to the lordliest smoking-room in London. He frowned, perceiving that his favourite arm-chair was occupied by a somnolent Judge of the High Court, and catching up the _Revue des Deux Mondes_, settled himself in a window-bay commanding the great twilit square of the Horse Guards and the lamp-lit Mall.

He had entered the smoking-room lightly, almost jauntily; but--not a doubt of it--he was tired--so tired that he shuffled his body twice and thrice in the arm-chair before discovering the precise angle that gave superlative comfort. . . .

'I beg your pardon, sir.'

Dick opened his eyes. A liveried footman stood over his chair, and was addressing him.

'Eh? Did I ring? Yes, you may bring me a glass of liqueur brandy. As quickly as possible, if you please; to tell the truth, George, I'm not feeling very well.'

The man started at hearing his name, but made no motion to obey the order.

'I beg your pardon, sir, but the secretary wishes to see you in his room.'

'The secretary? Mr Hood? Yes, certainly.' Dick rose. 'I--I am afraid you must give me your arm, please. A giddiness--the ship's motion, I suppose.'

The secretary was standing at his door in the great vestibule as Dick came down the staircase on the man's arm.

'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'but may I have your name? The porter does not recognise you, and I fear that I am equally at fault.'

'My name?'--with the same gesture that Mr Markham had used in the little back parlour, Dick passed a hand over his eyes. He laughed, and even to his own ears the laugh sounded vacant, foolish.

'Are you a member of the club, sir?'

'I--I thought I was.' The marble pillars of the atrium were swaying about him like painted cloths, the tesselated pavement heaving and rocking at his feet. 'Abominably stupid of me,' he muttered, 'unpardonable, you must think.'

The secretary looked at him narrowly, and decided that he was really ill; that there was nothing in his face to suggest the impostor.

'Come into my room for a moment,' he said, and sent the footman upstairs to make sure that no small property of the Club was missing. 'Here, drink down the brandy. . . . Feeling better? You are aware, no doubt, that I might call in the police and have you searched?'

For a moment Dick did not answer, but stood staring with rigid eyes. At length,--

'They--won't--find--what--I--want,' he said slowly, dropping out the words one by one. The secretary now felt certain that here was a genuine case of mental derangement. With such he had no desire to be troubled; and so, the footman bringing word that nothing had been stolen, he dismissed Dick to the street.



CHAPTER VI.


The brandy steadying him, Dick went down the steps with a fairly firm tread. But he went down into a world that for him was all darkness-- darkness of chaos--carrying an entity that was not his, but belonged Heaven knew to whom.

The streets, the traffic, meant nothing to him. Their roar was within his head; and on his ears, nostrils, chest, lay a pressure as of mighty waters. Rapidly as he walked, he felt himself all the while to be lying fathoms deep in those waters, face downwards, with drooped head, held motionless there while something within him struggled impotently to rise to the surface. The weight that held him down, almost to bursting, was as the weight of tons.

The houses, the shop-fronts, the street-lamps, the throng of dark figures, passed him in unmeaning procession. Yet all the time his feet, by some instinct, were leading him towards the water; and by-and-by he found himself staring--still face downwards--into a black inverted heaven wherein the lights had become stars and swayed only a little.

He had, in fact, halted, and was leaning over the parapet of the Embankment, a few yards from Cleopatra's Needle; and as he passed the plinth some impression of it must have bitten itself on the retina; for coiled among the stars lay two motionless sphinxes green-eyed, with sheathed claws, watching lazily while the pressure bore him down to them, and down--and still down. . . .

Upon this dome of night there broke the echo of a footfall. A thousand footsteps had passed him, and he had heard none of them. But this one, springing out of nowhere, sang and repeated itself and re-echoed across the dome, and from edge to edge. Dick's fingers drew themselves up like the claws of the sphinx. The footsteps drew nearer while he crouched: they were close to him. Dick leapt at them, with murder in his spring.

Where the two men grappled, the parapet of the Embankment opens on a flight of river-stairs. Mr Markham had uttered no cry; nor did a sound escape either man as, locked in that wrestle, they swayed over the brink.

They were hauled up, unconscious, still locked in each other's arms.

'Queer business,' said one of the rescuers as he helped to loosen their clasp, and lift the bodies on board the Royal Humane Society's float. Looks like murderous assault. But which of 'em done it by the looks, now?'

Five minutes later Dick's eyelids fluttered. For a moment he stared up at the dingy lamp swinging overhead; then his lips parted in a cry, faint, yet sharp--

'Take care, sir! That stanchion--'

But Mr Markham's first words were, 'Plucky! devilish plucky!--owe you my life, my lad.'

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