Casting the Runes
M. R. James
April 15th, 190-
Dear Sir, - I am requested by the Council of the ___ Association to
return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have
been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform
you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.
Dear Sir, - I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my
affording you an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our
laws allow of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as
you suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration
was given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined
without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent authority.
No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to add) can have had
the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.
Believe me (ut supra).
The Secretary of the ___ Association begs respectfully to inform Mr
Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any person
or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell's paper may have been submitted;
and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to reply to any
further letters on this subject.
'And who is Mr Karswell?' inquired the Secretary's wife. She had
called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of
these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.
'Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I
don't know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth,
his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he's an alchemist,
apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that's about all--except
that I don't want to meet him for the next week or two. Now, if you're ready
to leave this place, I am.'
'What have you been doing to make him angry?' asked Mrs Secretary.
'The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a
paper he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward
Dunning--almost the only man in England who knows about these things--and he
said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has been
pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the name of
the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that. But don't
you say anything about it, for goodness' sake.'
'I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope,
though, he won't get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.'
'Poor Mr Dunning? I don't know why you call him that; he's a very
happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his
time to himself.'
'I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his
name, and came and bothered him.'
'Oh, ah! yes. I dare say he would be poor Mr Dunning then.'
The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose
house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had already
settled it in her own mind that she would question them judiciously about Mr
Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading up to the subject, for
the hostess said to the host, before many minutes had passed, 'I saw the
Abbot of Lufford this morning.' The host whistled. 'Did you? What in the
world brings him up to town?' 'Goodness knows; he was coming out of the
British Museum gate as I drove past.' It was not unnatural that Mrs
Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot who was being spoken
of. 'Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought
Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is Karswell.' 'Is he a friend
of yours?' asked Mr Secretary, with a private wink to his wife. The question
let loose a torrent of declamation. There was really nothing to be said for
Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a
horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and
practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily
offended, and never forgave anybody: he had a dreadful face (so the lady
insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and
whatever influence he did exert was mischievous. 'Do the poor man justice,
dear,' the husband interrupted. 'You forgot the treat he gave the school
children.' 'Forget it, indeed! But I'm glad you mentioned it, because it
gives an idea of the man. Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he
was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of
his parish (he's not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show
the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new
kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather
surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant
to the children--complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort;
but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went
himself to see that everything went right. He said he never had been so
thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being
there: they were at a children's party at our house, as a matter of fact.
Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of
frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe,
if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began
with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then,
Mr Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller
children had to be taken out: and he said Mr Karswell began the story by
producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most
gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said,
were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them
or how he worked them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the
stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the
children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series
which represented a little boy passing through his own park--Lufford, I
mean--in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from
the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and
overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a
horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among
the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said
it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must
have meant to the children doesn't bear thinking of. Of course this was too
much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr Karswell, and said it couldn't
go on. All he said was: 'Oh, you think it's time to bring our little show to
an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!' And then, if you
please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes,
centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other made
it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst
the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which
sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of
them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don't suppose one of
them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the
village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame on
poor Mr Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe the
fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey. Well, now, that's Mr
Karswell: that's the Abbot of Lufford, my dear, and you can imagine how we
covet his society.'
'Yes, I think he has all the possibilities of a distinguished
criminal, has Karswell,' said the host. 'I should be sorry for anyone who
got into his bad books.'
'Is he the man, or am I mixing him up with someone else?' asked the
Secretary (who for some minutes had been wearing the frown of the man who is
trying to recollect something). 'Is he the man who brought out a History of
Witchcraft some time back--ten years or more?'
'That's the man; do you remember the reviews of it?'
'Certainly I do; and what's equally to the point, I knew the author of
the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John Harrington;
he was at John's in our time.'
'Oh, very well indeed, though I don't think I saw or heard anything of
him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the
inquest on him.'
'Inquest?' said one of the ladies. 'What has happened to him?'
'Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck.
But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a
mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man--not an athletic fellow,
was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed--walking
home along a country road late in the evening--no tramps about--well known
and liked in the place--and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his
hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree--quite a difficult tree--growing
in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and
breaks his neck, and there he's found next morning with the most dreadful
face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of
course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage
dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made
of that. That was in '89, and I believe his brother Henry (whom I remember
as well at Cambridge, but you probably don't) has been trying to get on the
track of an explanation ever since. He, of course, insists there was malice
in it, but I don't know. It's difficult to see how it could have come in.'
After a time the talk reverted to the History of Witchcraft. 'Did you
ever look into it?' asked the host.
'Yes, I did,' said the Secretary. 'I went so far as to read it.'
'Was it as bad as it was made out to be?'
'Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the
pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed
every word of what he was saying, and I'm very much mistaken if he hadn't
tried the greater part of his receipts.'
'Well, I only remember Harrington's review of it, and I must say if
I'd been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I
should never have held up my head again.'
'It hasn't had that effect in the present case. But come, it's
half-past three; I must be off.'
On the way home the Secretary's wife said, 'I do hope that horrible
man won't find out that Mr Dunning had anything to do with the rejection of
his paper.' 'I don't think there's much chance of that,' said the Secretary.
'Dunning won't mention it himself, for these matters are confidential, and
none of us will for the same reason. Karswell won't know his name, for
Dunning hasn't published anything on the same subject yet. The only danger
is that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask the British Museum people
who was in the habit of consulting alchemical manuscripts: I can't very well
tell them not to mention Dunning, can I? It would set them talking at once.
Let's hope it won't occur to him.'
However, Mr Karswell was an astute man.
This much is in the way of prologue. On an evening rather later in the
same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where he
had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb where he
lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long with him. There
is nothing to be added by way of description of him to what we have heard
already. Let us follow him as he takes his sober course homewards.
A train took him to within a mile or two of his house, and an electric
tram a stage farther. The line ended at a point some three hundred yards
from his front door. He had had enough of reading when he got into the car,
and indeed the light was not such as to allow him to do more than study the
advertisements on the panes of glass that faced him as he sat. As was not
unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of cars were objects
of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible exception of the
brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent KC on
the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them afforded much scope to his
imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the corner of the car farthest
from him which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow
ground, and all that he could read of it was a name--John Harrington--and
something like a date. It could be of no interest to him to know more; but
for all that, as the car emptied, he was just curious enough to move along
the seat until he could read it well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for
his trouble; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus: 'In
memory of John Harrington, FSA, of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th,
1889. Three months were allowed.'
The car stopped. Mr Dunning, still contemplating the blue letters on
the yellow ground, had to be stimulated to rise by a word from the
conductor. 'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I was looking at that
advertisement; it's a very odd one, isn't it?' The conductor read it slowly.
'Well, my word,' he said, 'I never see that one before. Well, that is a
cure, ain't it? Someone bin up to their jokes 'ere, I should think.' He got
out a duster and applied it, not without saliva, to the pane and then to the
outside. 'No,' he said, returning, 'that ain't no transfer; seems to me as
if it was reg'lar in the glass, what I mean in the substance, as you may
say. Don't you think so, sir?' Mr Dunning examined it and rubbed it with his
glove, and agreed. 'Who looks after these advertisements, and gives leave
for them to be put up? I wish you would inquire. I will just take a note of
the words.' At this moment there came a call from the driver: 'Look alive,
George, time's up.' 'All right, all right; there's somethink else what's up
at this end. You come and look at this 'ere glass.' 'What's gorn with the
glass?' said the driver, approaching. 'Well, and oo's 'Arrington? What's it
all about?' 'I was just asking who was responsible for putting the
advertisements up in your cars, and saying it would be as well to make some
inquiry about this one.' 'Well, sir, that's all done at the Company's
orfice, that work is: it's our Mr Timms, I believe, looks into that. When we
put up tonight I'll leave word, and per'aps I'll be able to tell you
tomorrer if you 'appen to be coming this way.'
This was all that passed that evening. Mr Dunning did just go to the
trouble of looking up Ashbrooke, and found that it was in Warwickshire.
Next day he went to town again. The car (it was the same car) was too
full in the morning to allow of his getting a word with the conductor: he
could only be sure that the curious advertisement had been made away with.
The close of the day brought a further element of mystery into the
transaction. He had missed the tram, or else preferred walking home, but at
a rather late hour, while he was at work in his study, one of the maids came
to say that two men from the tramways was very anxious to speak to him. This
was a reminder of the advertisement, which he had, he says, nearly
forgotten. He had the men in--they were the conductor and driver of the
car--and when the matter of refreshment had been attended to, asked what Mr
Timms had had to say about the advertisement. 'Well, sir, that's what we
took the liberty to step round about,' said the conductor. 'Mr Timms 'e give
William 'ere the rough side of his tongue about that: 'cordin' to 'im there
warn't no advertisement of that description sent in, nor ordered, nor paid
for, nor put up, nor nothink, let alone not bein' there, and we was playing
the fool takin' up his time. "Well," I says, "if that's the case, all I ask
of you, Mr Timms," I says, "is to take and look at it for yourself," I says.
"Of course if it ain't there," I says, "you may take and call me what you
like." "Right," he says, "I will": and we went straight off. Now, I leave it
to you, sir, if that ad., as we term 'em, with 'Arrington on it warn't as
plain as ever you see anythink--blue letters on yeller glass, and as I says
at the time, and you borne me out, reg'lar in the glass, because, if you
remember, you recollect of me swabbing it with my duster.' 'To be sure I do,
quite clearly--well?' 'You may say well, I don't think. Mr Timms he gets in
that car with a light--no, he telled William to 'old the light outside.
"Now," he says, "where's your precious ad. what we've 'eard so much about?'
"'Ere it is," I says, "Mr Timms," and I laid my 'and on it.' The conductor
'Well,' said Mr Dunning, 'it was gone, I suppose. Broken?'
'Broke! --not it. There warn't, if you'll believe me, no more trace of
them letters--blue letters they was--on that piece o' glass, than--well,
it's no good me talkin'. I never see such a thing. I leave it to William
here if--but there, as I says, where's the benefit in me going on about it?'
'And what did Mr Timms say?'
'Why 'e did what I give 'im leave to--called us pretty much anythink
he liked, and I don't know as I blame him so much neither. But what we
thought, William and me did, was as we seen you take down a bit of a note
about that well, that letterin'--,
'I certainly did that, and I have it now. Did you wish me to speak to
Mr Timms myself, and show it to him? Was that what you came in about?'
'There, didn't I say as much?' said William. 'Deal with a gent if you
can get on the track of one, that's my word. Now perhaps, George, you'll
allow as I ain't took you very far wrong tonight.'
'Very well, William, very well; no need for you to go on as if you'd
'ad to frog's-march me 'ere. I come quiet, didn't I! All the same for that,
we 'adn't ought to take up your time this way, sir; but if it so 'appened
you could find time to step round to the Company's orfice in the morning and
tell Mr Timms what you seen for yourself, we should lay under a very 'igh
obligation to you for the trouble. You see it ain't bein' called--well, one
thing and another, as we mind, but if they got it into their 'ead at the
orfice as we seen things as warn't there, why, one thing leads to another,
and where we should be a twelvemunce 'ence--well, you can understand what I
Amid further elucidations of the proposition, George, conducted by
William, left the room.
The incredulity of Mr Timms (who had a nodding acquaintance with Mr
Dunning) was greatly modified on the following day by what the latter could
tell and show him; and any bad mark that might have been attached to the
names of William and George was not suffered to remain on the Company's
books; but explanation there was none.
Mr Dunning's interest in the matter was kept alive by an incident of
the following afternoon. He was walking from his club to the train, and he
noticed some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are
distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms. This agent had
not chosen a very crowded street for his operations: in fact, Mr Dunning did
not see him get rid of a single leaflet before he himself reached the spot.
One was thrust into his hand as he passed: the hand that gave it touched
his, and he experienced a sort of little shock as it did so. It seemed
unnaturally rough and hot. He looked in passing at the giver, but the
impression he got was so unclear that, however much he tried to reckon it up
subsequently, nothing would come. He was walking quickly, and as he went on
glanced at the paper. It was a blue one. The name of Harrington in large
capitals caught his eye. He stopped, startled, and felt for his glasses. The
next instant the leaflet was twitched out of his hand by a man who hurried
past, and was irrecoverably gone. He ran back a few paces, but where was the
passer-by? and where the distributor?
It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on
the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and
filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few
minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted
first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind
him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio
of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of
the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick
up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work,
when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to
leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder,
saying, 'May I give you this? I think it should be yours,' and handed him a
missing quire. 'It is mine, thank you,' said Mr Dunning. In another moment
the man had left the room. Upon finishing his work for the afternoon, Mr
Dunning had some conversation with the assistant in charge, and took
occasion to ask who the stout gentleman was. 'Oh, he's a man named
Karswell,' said the assistant; 'he was asking me a week ago who were the
great authorities on alchemy, and of course I told him you were the only one
in the country. I'll see if I can't catch him: he'd like to meet you, I'm
'For heaven's sake don't dream of it!' said Mr Dunning, 'I'm
particularly anxious to avoid him.'
'Oh! very well,' said the assistant, 'he doesn't come here often: I
dare say you won't meet him.'
More than once on the way home that day Mr Dunning confessed to
himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a
solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable
had stepped in between him and his fellow-men--had taken him in charge, as
it were. He wanted to sit close up to his neighbours in the train and in the
tram, but as luck would have it both train and car were markedly empty. The
conductor George was thoughtful, and appeared to be absorbed in calculations
as to the number of passengers. On arriving at his house he found Dr Watson,
his medical man, on his doorstep. 'I've had to upset your household
arrangements, I'm sorry to say, Dunning. Both your servants hors de combat.
In fact, I've had to send them to the Nursing Home.'
'Good heavens! what's the matter?'
'It's something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you've not
suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn't be walking about. I think
they'll pull through all right.'
'Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?'
'Well, they tell me they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their
dinner-time. It's odd. I've made inquiries, but I can't find that any hawker
has been to other houses in the street. I couldn't send word to you; they
won't be back for a bit yet. You come and dine with me tonight, anyhow, and
we can make arrangements for going on. Eight o'clock. Don't be too anxious.'
The solitary evening was thus obviated; at the expense of some
distress and inconvenience, it is true. Mr Dunning spent the time pleasantly
enough with the doctor (a rather recent settler), and returned to his lonely
home at about 11.30. The night he passed is not one on which he looks back
with any satisfaction. He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering
if the charwoman would come early enough to get him hot water next morning,
when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step
followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he
knew that he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in
his desk. It was rather shame than courage that induced him to slip out into
the passage and lean over the banister in his nightgown, listening. No light
was visible; no further sound came: only a gust of warm, or even hot air
played for an instant round his shins. He went back and decided to lock
himself into his room. There was more unpleasantness, however. Either an
economical suburban company had decided that their light would not be
required in the small hours, and had stopped working, or else something was
wrong with the meter; the effect was in any case that the electric light was
off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch:
he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put
his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so
far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and
with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do
not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare
room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious
again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every
moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
The venturing back to his own room in the morning was attended with
many listenings and quiverings. The door stood open, fortunately, and the
blinds were up (the servants had been out of the house before the hour of
drawing them down); there was, to be short, no trace of an inhabitant. The
watch, too, was in its usual place; nothing was disturbed, only the wardrobe
door had swung open, in accordance with its confirmed habit. A ring at the
back door now announced the charwoman, who had been ordered the night
before, and nerved Mr Dunning, after letting her in, to continue his search
in other parts of the house. It was equally fruitless.
The day thus begun went on dismally enough. He dared not go to the
Museum: in spite of what the assistant had said, Karswell might turn up
there, and Dunning felt he could not cope with a probably hostile stranger.
His own house was odious; he hated sponging on the doctor. He spent some
little time in a call at the Nursing Home, where he was slightly cheered by
a good report of his housekeeper and maid. Towards lunch-time he betook
himself to his club, again experiencing a gleam of satisfaction at seeing
the Secretary of the Association. At luncheon Dunning told his friend the
more material of his woes, but could not bring himself to speak to those
that weighed most heavily on his spirits. 'My poor dear man,' said the
Secretary, 'what an upset! Look here: we're alone at home, absolutely. You
must put up with us. Yes! no excuse: send your things in this afternoon.'
Dunning was unable to stand out: he was, in truth, becoming acutely anxious,
as the hours went on, as to what that night might have waiting for him. He
was almost happy as he hurried home to pack up.
His friends, when they had time to take stock of him, were rather
shocked at his lorn appearance, and did their best to keep him up to the
mark. Not altogether without success: but, when the two men were smoking
alone later, Dunning became dull again. Suddenly he said, 'Gayton, I believe
that alchemist man knows it was I who got his paper rejected.' Gayton
whistled. 'What makes you think that?' he said. Dunning told of his
conversation with the Museum assistant, and Gayton could only agree that the
guess seemed likely to be correct. 'Not that I care much,' Dunning went on,
'only it might be a nuisance if we were to meet. He's a bad-tempered party,
I imagine.' Conversation dropped again; Gayton became more and more strongly
impressed with the desolateness that came over Dunning's face and bearing,
and finally--though with a considerable effort--he asked him point-blank
whether something serious was not bothering him. Dunning gave an exclamation
of relief. 'I was perishing to get it off my mind,' he said. 'Do you know
anything about a man named John Harrington?' Gayton was thoroughly startled,
and at the moment could only ask why. Then the complete story of Dunning's
experiences came out--what had happened in the tramcar, in his own house,
and in the street, the troubling of spirit that had crept over him, and
still held him; and he ended with the question he had begun with. Gayton was
at a loss how to answer him. To tell the story of Harrington's end would
perhaps be right; only, Dunning was in a nervous state, the story was a grim
one, and he could not help asking himself whether there were not a
connecting link between these two cases, in the person of Karswell. It was a
difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could be eased by the
phrase 'hypnotic suggestion'. In the end he decided that his answer tonight
should be guarded; he would talk the situation over with his wife. So he
said that he had known Harrington at Cambridge, and believed he had died
suddenly in 1889, adding a few details about the man and his published work.
He did talk over the matter with Mrs Gayton, and, as he had anticipated, she
leapt at once to the conclusion which had been hovering before him. It was
she who reminded him of the surviving brother, Henry Harrington, and she
also who suggested that he might be got hold of by means of their hosts of
the day before. 'He might be a hopeless crank,' objected Gayton. 'That could
be ascertained from the Bennetts, who knew him,' Mrs Gayton retorted; and
she undertook to see the Bennetts the very next day.
It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry
Harrington and Dunning were brought together.
The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation that
took place between the two. Dunning had told Harrington of the strange ways
in which the dead man's name had been brought before him, and had said
something, besides, of his own subsequent experiences. Then he had asked if
Harrington was disposed, in return, to recall any of the circumstances
connected with his brother's death. Harrington's surprise at what he heard
can be imagined: but his reply was readily given.
'John,' he said, 'was in a very odd state, undeniably, from time to
time, during some weeks before, though not immediately before, the
catastrophe. There were several things; the principal notion he had was that
he thought he was being followed. No doubt he was an impressionable man, but
he never had had such fancies as this before. I cannot get it out of my mind
that there was ill-will at work, and what you tell me about yourself reminds
me very much of my brother. Can you think of any possible connecting link?'
'There is just one that has been taking shape vaguely in my mind. I've
been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely not long before he
died, and just lately I have happened to cross the path of the man who wrote
that book in a way he would resent.'
'Don't tell me the man was called Karswell.'
'Why not? that is exactly his name.'
Henry Harrington leant back. 'That is final to my mind. Now I must
explain further. From something he said, I feel sure that my brother John
was beginning to believe--very much against his will--that Karswell was at
the bottom of his trouble. I want to tell you what seems to me to have a
bearing on the situation. My brother was a great musician, and used to run
up to concerts in town. He came back, three months before he died, from one
of these, and gave me his programme to look at--an analytical programme: he
always kept them. "I nearly missed this one," he said. "I suppose I must
have dropped it: anyhow, I was looking for it under my seat and in my
pockets and so on, and my neighbour offered me his: said 'might he give it
me, he had no further use for it', and he went away just afterwards. I don't
know who he was--a stout, clean-shaven man. I should have been sorry to miss
it; of course I could have bought another, but this cost me nothing." At
another time he told me that he had been very uncomfortable both on the way
to his hotel and during the night. I piece things together now in thinking
it over. Then, not very long after, he was going over these programmes,
putting them in order to have them bound up, and in this particular one
(which by the way I had hardly glanced at), he found quite near the
beginning a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and
black--most carefully done--it looked to me more like Runic letters than
anything else. "Why," he said, "this must belong to my fat neighbour. It
looks as if it might be worth returning to him; it may be a copy of
something; evidently someone has taken trouble over it. How can I find his
address?" We talked it over for a little and agreed that it wasn't worth
advertising about, and that my brother had better look out for the man at
the next concert, to which he was going very soon. The paper was lying on
the book and we were both by the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening.
I suppose the door blew open, though I didn't notice it: at any rate a
gust--a warm gust it was--came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and
blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and
went up the chimney in a single ash. "Well," I said, "you can't give it back
now." He said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, "No, I can't; but
why you should keep on saying so I don't know." I remarked that I didn't say
it more than once. "Not more than four times, you mean," was all he said. I
remember all that very clearly, without any good reason; and now to come to
the point. I don't know if you looked at that book of Karswell's which my
unfortunate brother reviewed. It's not likely that you should: but I did,
both before his death and after it. The first time we made game of it
together. It was written in no style at all--split infinitives, and every
sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that
the man didn't swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the
Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today--all very proper, no
doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn't: he seemed to put the
Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a
pitiable exhibition, in short. Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the
book again. It was no better than before, but the impression which it left
this time on my mind was different. I suspected--as I told you--that
Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother, even that he was in some way
responsible for what had happened; and now his book seemed to me to be a
very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in
which he spoke of "casting the Runes" on people, either for the purpose of
gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way--perhaps more
especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to
me to imply actual knowledge. I've got no time to go into details, but the
upshot is that I am pretty sure from information received that the civil man
at the concert was Karswell: I suspect--I more than suspect--that the paper
was of importance: and I do believe that if my brother had been able to give
it back, he might have been alive now. Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you
whether you have anything to put beside what I have told you.'
By way of answer, Dunning had the episode in the Manuscript Room at
the British Museum to relate. 'Then he did actually hand you some papers;
have you examined them? No? because we must, if you'll allow it, look at
them at once, and very carefully.'
They went to the still empty house--empty, for the two servants were
not yet able to return to work. Dunning's portfolio of papers was gathering
dust on the writing-table. In it were the quires of small-sized scribbling
paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of these, as he took
it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room with uncanny quickness,
a strip of thin light paper. The window was open, but Harrington slammed it
to, just in time to intercept the paper, which he caught. 'I thought so,' he
said; 'it might be the identical thing that was given to my brother. You'll
have to look out, Dunning; this may mean something quite serious for you.'
A long consultation took place. The paper was narrowly examined. As
Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like Runes than anything
else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to copy them,
for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil purpose they
might conceal. So it has remained impossible (if I may anticipate a little)
to ascertain what was conveyed in this curious message or commission. Both
Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it had the effect of
bringing its possessors into very undesirable company. That it must be
returned to the source whence it came they were agreed, and further, that
the only safe and certain way was that of personal service; and here
contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning was known by sight to Karswell.
He must, for one thing, alter his appearance by shaving his beard. But then
might not the blow fall first? Harrington thought they could time it. He
knew the date of the concert at which the 'black spot' had been put on his
brother: it was June 18th. The death had followed on Sept. 18th. Dunning
reminded him that three months had been mentioned on the inscription on the
car-window. 'Perhaps,' he added, with a cheerless laugh, 'mine may be a bill
at three months too. I believe I can fix it by my diary. Yes, April 23rd was
the day at the Museum; that brings us to July 23rd. Now, you know, it
becomes extremely important to me to know anything you will tell me about
the progress of your brother's trouble, if it is possible for you to speak
of it.' 'Of course. Well, the sense of being watched whenever he was alone
was the most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in
his room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in
his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before things
are straightened out? I think not, but I can tell you this: two things came
for him by post during those weeks, both with a London postmark, and
addressed in a commercial hand. One was a woodcut of Bewick's, roughly torn
out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it,
followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of
the "Ancient Mariner" (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who,
having once looked round--
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
The other was a calendar, such as tradesmen often send. My brother paid no
attention to this, but I looked at it after his death, and found that
everything after Sept. 18 had been torn out. You may be surprised at his
having gone out alone the evening he was killed, but the fact is that during
the last ten days or so of his life he had been quite free from the sense of
being followed or watched.'
The end of the consultation was this. Harrington, who knew a neighbour
of Karswell's, thought he saw a way of keeping a watch on his movements. It
would be Dunning's part to be in readiness to try to cross Karswell's path
at any moment, to keep the paper safe and in a place of ready access.
They parted. The next weeks were no doubt a severe strain upon
Dunning's nerves: the intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about him
on the day when he received the paper, gradually developed into a brooding
blackness that cut him off from the means of escape to which one might have
thought he might resort. No one was at hand who was likely to suggest them
to him, and he seemed robbed of all initiative. He waited with inexpressible
anxiety as May, June, and early July passed on, for a mandate from
Harrington. But all this time Karswell remained immovable at Lufford.
At last, in less than a week before the date he had come to look upon
as the end of his earthly activities, came a telegram: 'Leaves Victoria by
boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you tonight. Harrington.'
He arrived accordingly, and they concocted plans. The train left
Victoria at nine and its last stop before Dover was Croydon West. Harrington
would mark down Karswell at Victoria, and look out for Dunning at Croydon,
calling to him if need were by a name agreed upon. Dunning, disguised as far
as might be, was to have no label or initials on any hand luggage, and must
at all costs have the paper with him.
Dunning's suspense as he waited on the Croydon platform I need not
attempt to describe. His sense of danger during the last days had only been
sharpened by the fact that the cloud about him had perceptibly been lighter;
but relief was an ominous symptom, and, if Karswell eluded him now, hope was
gone: and there were so many chances of that. The rumour of the journey
might be itself a device. The twenty minutes in which he paced the platform
and persecuted every porter with inquiries as to the boat train were as
bitter as any he had spent. Still, the train came, and Harrington was at the
window. It was important, of course, that there should be no recognition: so
Dunning got in at the farther end of the corridor carriage, and only
gradually made his way to the compartment where Harrington and Karswell
were. He was pleased, on the whole, to see that the train was far from full.
Karswell was on the alert, but gave no sign of recognition. Dunning
took the seat not immediately facing him, and attempted, vainly at first,
then with increasing command of his faculties, to reckon the possibilities
of making the desired transfer. Opposite to Karswell, and next to Dunning,
was a heap of Karswell's coats on the seat. It would be of no use to slip
the paper into these--he would not be safe, or would not feel so, unless in
some way it could be proffered by him and accepted by the other. There was a
handbag, open, and with papers in it. Could he manage to conceal this (so
that perhaps Karswell might leave the carriage without it), and then find
and give it to him? This was the plan that suggested itself. If he could
only have counselled with Harrington! but that could not be. The minutes
went on. More than once Karswell rose and went out into the corridor. The
second time Dunning was on the point of attempting to make the bag fall off
the seat, but he caught Harrington's eye, and read in it a warning.
Karswell, from the corridor, was watching: probably to see if the two men
recognized each other. He returned, but was evidently restless: and, when he
rose the third time, hope dawned, for something did slip off his seat and
fall with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out once more, and
passed out of range of the corridor window. Dunning picked up what had
fallen, and saw that the key was in his hands in the form of one of Cook's
ticket-cases, with tickets in it. These cases have a pocket in the cover,
and within very few seconds the paper of which we have heard was in the
pocket of this one. To make the operation more secure, Harrington stood in
the doorway of the compartment and fiddled with the blind. It was done, and
done at the right time, for the train was now slowing down towards Dover.
In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so,
Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice,
handed him the ticket-case, saying, 'May I give you this, sir? I believe it
is yours.' After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered the
hoped-for response, 'Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,' and he placed it
in his breast pocket.
Even in the few moments that remained--moments of tense anxiety, for
they knew not to what a premature finding of the paper might lead--both men
noticed that the carriage seemed to darken about them and to grow warmer;
that Karswell was fidgety and oppressed; that he drew the heap of loose
coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and that he then
sat upright and glanced anxiously at both. They, with sickening anxiety,
busied themselves in collecting their belongings; but they both thought that
Karswell was on the point of speaking when the train stopped at Dover Town.
It was natural that in the short space between town and pier they should
both go into the corridor.
At the pier they got out, but so empty was the train that they were
forced to linger on the platform until Karswell should have passed ahead of
them with his porter on the way to the boat, and only then was it safe for
them to exchange a pressure of the hand and a word of concentrated
congratulation. The effect upon Dunning was to make him almost faint.
Harrington made him lean up against the wall, while he himself went forward
a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which Karswell had
now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket, and, laden with
coats, he passed down into the boat. Suddenly the official called after him,
'You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?' 'What the
devil do you mean by the other gentleman?' Karswell's snarling voice called
back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. 'The devil? Well, I
don't know, I'm sure,' Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud,
'My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.' And then, to a
subordinate near him, ''Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I
could 'a' swore 'e wasn't alone. Well, whatever it was, they'll 'ave to see
to it aboard. She's off now. Another week and we shall be gettin' the
'oliday customers.' In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening
lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and
Long and long the two sat in their room at the 'Lord Warden'. In spite
of the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt,
not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his death,
as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? 'No,' said
Harrington; 'if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more than is
just. Still, if you think it better--but how and where can you warn him?'
'He was booked to AbbŽville only,' said Dunning. 'I saw that. If I wired to
the hotels there in Joanne's Guide, "Examine your ticket-case, Dunning," I
should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will have a day. But I am afraid
he has gone into the dark.' So telegrams were left at the hotel office.
It is not clear whether these reached their destination, or whether,
if they did, they were understood. All that is known is that, on the
afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St
Wulfram's Church at AbbŽville, then under extensive repair, was struck on
the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected
round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly proved, no
workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller's papers
identified him as Mr Karswell.
Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell's sale a set of Bewick,
sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut
of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also,
after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what
he bad heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before
Dunning stopped him.