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The Country of the Blind, And Other Stories by H. G. Wells

Part 4 out of 9

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over a type-written copy, so that its substantial correctness is
undeniable.

He states that at the moment of the explosion he distinctly thought he was
killed. He felt lifted off his feet and driven forcibly backward. It is a
curious fact for psychologists that he thought clearly during his backward
flight, and wondered whether he should hit the chemistry cupboard or the
blackboard easel. His heels struck ground, and he staggered and fell
heavily into a sitting position on something soft and firm. For a moment
the concussion stunned him. He became aware at once of a vivid scent of
singed hair, and he seemed to hear the voice of Lidgett asking for him.
You will understand that for a time his mind was greatly confused.

At first he was under the impression that he was still standing in the
class-room. He perceived quite distinctly the surprise of the boys and the
entry of Mr. Lidgett. He is quite positive upon that score. He did not
hear their remarks; but that he ascribed to the deafening effect of the
experiment. Things about him seemed curiously dark and faint, but his mind
explained that on the obvious but mistaken idea that the explosion had
engendered a huge volume of dark smoke. Through the dimness the figures of
Lidgett and the boys moved, as faint and silent as ghosts. Plattner's face
still tingled with the stinging heat of the flash. He, was, he says, "all
muddled." His first definite thoughts seem to have been of his personal
safety. He thought he was perhaps blinded and deafened. He felt his limbs
and face in a gingerly manner. Then his perceptions grew clearer, and he
was astonished to miss the old familiar desks and other schoolroom
furniture about him. Only dim, uncertain, grey shapes stood in the place
of these. Then came a thing that made him shout aloud, and awoke his
stunned faculties to instant activity. _Two of the boys, gesticulating,
walked one after the other clean through him_! Neither manifested the
slightest consciousness of his presence. It is difficult to imagine the
sensation he felt. They came against him, he says, with no more force than
a wisp of mist.

Plattner's first thought after that was that he was dead. Having been
brought up with thoroughly sound views in these matters, however, he was a
little surprised to find his body still about him. His second conclusion
was that he was not dead, but that the others were: that the explosion had
destroyed the Sussexville Proprietary School and every soul in it except
himself. But that, too, was scarcely satisfactory. He was thrown back upon
astonished observation.

Everything about him was profoundly dark: at first it seemed to have an
altogether ebony blackness. Overhead was a black firmament. The only touch
of light in the scene was a faint greenish glow at the edge of the sky in
one direction, which threw into prominence a horizon of undulating black
hills. This, I say, was his impression at first. As his eye grew
accustomed to the darkness, he began to distinguish a faint quality of
differentiating greenish colour in the circumambient night. Against this
background the furniture and occupants of the class-room, it seems, stood
out like phosphorescent spectres, faint and impalpable. He extended his
hand, and thrust it without an effort through the wall of the room by the
fireplace.

He describes himself as making a strenuous effort to attract attention. He
shouted to Lidgett, and tried to seize the boys as they went to and fro.
He only desisted from these attempts when Mrs. Lidgett, whom he (as an
Assistant Master) naturally disliked, entered the room. He says the
sensation of being in the world, and yet not a part of it, was an
extraordinarily disagreeable one. He compared his feelings, not inaptly,
to those of a cat watching a mouse through a window. Whenever he made a
motion to communicate with the dim, familiar world about him, he found an
invisible, incomprehensible barrier preventing intercourse.

He then turned his attention to his solid environment. He found the
medicine bottle still unbroken in his hand, with the remainder of the
green powder therein. He put this in his pocket, and began to feel about
him. Apparently he was sitting on a boulder of rock covered with a velvety
moss. The dark country about him he was unable to see, the faint, misty
picture of the schoolroom blotting it out, but he had a feeling (due
perhaps to a cold wind) that he was near the crest of a hill, and that a
steep valley fell away beneath his feet. The green glow along the edge of
the sky seemed to be growing in extent and intensity. He stood up, rubbing
his eyes.

It would seem that he made a few steps, going steeply downhill, and then
stumbled, nearly fell, and sat down again upon a jagged mass of rock to
watch the dawn. He became aware that the world about him was absolutely
silent. It was as still as it was dark, and though there was a cold wind
blowing up the hill-face, the rustle of grass, the soughing of the boughs
that should have accompanied it, were absent. He could hear, therefore, if
he could not see, that the hillside upon which he stood was rocky and
desolate. The green grew brighter every moment, and as it did so a faint,
transparent blood-red mingled with, but did not mitigate, the blackness of
the sky overhead and the rocky desolations about him. Having regard to
what follows, I am inclined to think that that redness may have been an
optical effect due to contrast. Something black fluttered momentarily
against the livid yellow-green of the lower sky, and then the thin and
penetrating voice of a bell rose out of the black gulf below him. An
oppressive expectation grew with the growing light.

It is probable that an hour or more elapsed while he sat there, the
strange green light growing brighter every moment, and spreading slowly,
in flamboyant fingers, upward towards the zenith. As it grew, the spectral
vision of _our_ world became relatively or absolutely fainter.
Probably both, for the time must have been about that of our earthly
sunset. So far as his vision of our world went, Plattner, by his few steps
downhill, had passed through the floor of the class-room, and was now, it
seemed, sitting in mid-air in the larger schoolroom downstairs. He saw the
boarders distinctly, but much more faintly than he had seen Lidgett. They
were preparing their evening tasks, and he noticed with interest that
several were cheating with their Euclid riders by means of a crib, a
compilation whose existence he had hitherto never suspected. As the time
passed, they faded steadily, as steadily as the light of the green dawn
increased.

Looking down into the valley, he saw that the light had crept far down its
rocky sides, and that the profound blackness of the abyss was now broken
by a minute green glow, like the light of a glow-worm. And almost
immediately the limb of a huge heavenly body of blazing green rose over
the basaltic undulations of the distant hills, and the monstrous
hill-masses about him came out gaunt and desolate, in green light and
deep, ruddy black shadows. He became aware of a vast number of ball-shaped
objects drifting as thistledown drifts over the high ground. There were
none of these nearer to him than the opposite side of the gorge. The bell
below twanged quicker and quicker, with something like impatient
insistence, and several lights moved hither and thither. The boys at work
at their desks were now almost imperceptibly faint.

This extinction of our world, when the green sun of this other universe
rose, is a curious point upon which Plattner insists. During the
Other-World night it is difficult to move about, on account of the
vividness with which the things of this world are visible. It becomes a
riddle to explain why, if this is the case, we in this world catch no
glimpse of the Other-World. It is due, perhaps, to the comparatively
vivid illumination of this world of ours. Plattner describes the midday
of the Other-World, at its brightest, as not being nearly so bright as
this world at full moon, while its night is profoundly black.
Consequently, the amount of light, even in an ordinary dark room, is
sufficient to render the things of the Other-World invisible, on the
same principle that faint phosphorescence is only visible in the
profoundest darkness. I have tried, since he told me his story, to see
something of the Other-World by sitting for a long space in a
photographer's dark room at night. I have certainly seen indistinctly
the form of greenish slopes and rocks, but only, I must admit, very
indistinctly indeed. The reader may possibly be more successful. Plattner
tells me that since his return he has dreamt and seen and recognised
places in the Other-World, but this is probably due to his memory
of these scenes. It seems quite possible that people with unusually
keen eyesight may occasionally catch a glimpse of this strange Other-World
about us.

However, this is a digression. As the green sun rose, a long street of
black buildings became perceptible, though only darkly and indistinctly,
in the gorge, and after some hesitation, Plattner began to clamber down
the precipitous descent towards them. The descent was long and exceedingly
tedious, being so not only by the extraordinary steepness, but also by
reason of the looseness of the boulders with which the whole face of the
hill was strewn. The noise of his descent--now and then his heels struck
fire from the rocks--seemed now the only sound in the universe, for the
beating of the bell had ceased. As he drew nearer, he perceived that the
various edifices had a singular resemblance to tombs and mausoleums and
monuments, saving only that they were all uniformly black instead of being
white, as most sepulchres are. And then he saw, crowding out of the
largest building, very much as people disperse from church, a number of
pallid, rounded, pale-green figures. These dispersed in several directions
about the broad street of the place, some going through side alleys and
reappearing upon the steepness of the hill, others entering some of the
small black buildings which lined the way.

At the sight of these things drifting up towards him, Plattner stopped,
staring. They were not walking, they were indeed limbless, and they had
the appearance of human heads, beneath which a tadpole-like body swung. He
was too astonished at their strangeness, too full, indeed, of strangeness,
to be seriously alarmed by them. They drove towards him, in front of the
chill wind that was blowing uphill, much as soap-bubbles drive before a
draught. And as he looked at the nearest of those approaching, he saw it
was indeed a human head, albeit with singularly large eyes, and wearing
such an expression of distress and anguish as he had never seen before
upon mortal countenance. He was surprised to find that it did not turn to
regard him, but seemed to be watching and following some unseen moving
thing. For a moment he was puzzled, and then it occurred to him that this
creature was watching with its enormous eyes something that was happening
in the world he had just left. Nearer it came, and nearer, and he was too
astonished to cry out. It made a very faint fretting sound as it came
close to him. Then it struck his face with a gentle pat--its touch was
very cold--and drove past him, and upward towards the crest of the hill.

An extraordinary conviction flashed across Plattner's mind that this head
had a strong likeness to Lidgett. Then he turned his attention to the
other heads that were now swarming thickly up the hill-side. None made the
slightest sign of recognition. One or two, indeed, came close to his head
and almost followed the example of the first, but he dodged convulsively
out of the way. Upon most of them he saw the same expression of unavailing
regret he had seen upon the first, and heard the same faint sounds of
wretchedness from them. One or two wept, and one rolling swiftly uphill
wore an expression of diabolical rage. But others were cold, and several
had a look of gratified interest in their eyes. One, at least, was almost
in an ecstasy of happiness. Plattner does not remember that he recognised
any more likenesses in those he saw at this time.

For several hours, perhaps, Plattner watched these strange things
dispersing themselves over the hills, and not till long after they had
ceased to issue from the clustering black buildings in the gorge, did he
resume his downward climb. The darkness about him increased so much that
he had a difficulty in stepping true. Overhead the sky was now a bright,
pale green. He felt neither hunger nor thirst. Later, when he did, he
found a chilly stream running down the centre of the gorge, and the rare
moss upon the boulders, when he tried it at last in desperation, was good
to eat.

He groped about among the tombs that ran down the gorge, seeking vaguely
for some clue to these inexplicable things. After a long time he came to
the entrance of the big mausoleum-like building from which the heads had
issued. In this he found a group of green lights burning upon a kind of
basaltic altar, and a bell-rope from a belfry overhead hanging down into
the centre of the place. Round the wall ran a lettering of fire in a
character unknown to him. While he was still wondering at the purport of
these things, he heard the receding tramp of heavy feet echoing far down
the street. He ran out into the darkness again, but he could see nothing.
He had a mind to pull the bell-rope, and finally decided to follow the
footsteps. But, although he ran far, he never overtook them; and his
shouting was of no avail. The gorge seemed to extend an interminable
distance. It was as dark as earthly starlight throughout its length, while
the ghastly green day lay along the upper edge of its precipices. There
were none of the heads, now, below. They were all, it seemed, busily
occupied along the upper slopes. Looking up, he saw them drifting hither
and thither, some hovering stationary, some flying swiftly through the
air. It reminded him, he said, of "big snowflakes"; only these were black
and pale green.

In pursuing the firm, undeviating footsteps that he never overtook, in
groping into new regions of this endless devil's dyke, in clambering up
and down the pitiless heights, in wandering about the summits, and in
watching the drifting faces, Plattner states that he spent the better part
of seven or eight days. He did not keep count, he says. Though once or
twice he found eyes watching him, he had word with no living soul. He
slept among the rocks on the hillside. In the gorge things earthly were
invisible, because, from the earthly standpoint, it was far underground.
On the altitudes, so soon as the earthly day began, the world became
visible to him. He found himself sometimes stumbling over the dark green
rocks, or arresting himself on a precipitous brink, while all about him
the green branches of the Sussexville lanes were swaying; or, again, he
seemed to be walking through the Sussexville streets, or watching unseen
the private business of some household. And then it was he discovered,
that to almost every human being in our world there pertained some of
these drifting heads; that everyone in the world is watched intermittently
by these helpless disembodiments.

What are they--these Watchers of the Living? Plattner never learned. But
two, that presently found and followed him, were like his childhood's
memory of his father and mother. Now and then other faces turned their
eyes upon him: eyes like those of dead people who had swayed him, or
injured him, or helped him in his youth and manhood. Whenever they looked
at him, Plattner was overcome with a strange sense of responsibility. To
his mother he ventured to speak; but she made no answer. She looked sadly,
steadfastly, and tenderly--a little reproachfully, too, it seemed--into
his eyes.

He simply tells this story: he does not endeavour to explain. We are left
to surmise who these Watchers of the Living may be, or, if they are indeed
the Dead, why they should so closely and passionately watch a world they
have left for ever. It may be--indeed to my mind it seems just--that, when
our life has closed, when evil or good is no longer a choice for us, we
may still have to witness the working out of the train of consequences we
have laid. If human souls continue after death, then surely human
interests continue after death. But that is merely my own guess at the
meaning of the things seen. Plattner offers no interpretation, for none
was given him. It is well the reader should understand this clearly. Day
after day, with his head reeling, he wandered about this strange lit world
outside the world, weary and, towards the end, weak and hungry. By day--by
our earthly day, that is--the ghostly vision of the old familiar scenery
of Sussexville, all about him, irked and worried him. He could not see
where to put his feet, and ever and again with a chilly touch one of these
Watching Souls would come against his face. And after dark the multitude
of these Watchers about him, and their intent distress, confused his mind
beyond describing. A great longing to return to the earthly life that was
so near and yet so remote consumed him. The unearthliness of things about
him produced a positively painful mental distress. He was worried beyond
describing by his own particular followers. He would shout at them to
desist from staring at him, scold at them, hurry away from them. They were
always mute and intent. Run as he might over the uneven ground, they
followed his destinies.

On the ninth day, towards evening, Plattner heard the invisible footsteps
approaching, far away down the gorge. He was then wandering over the broad
crest of the same hill upon which he had fallen in his entry into this
strange Other-World of his. He turned to hurry down into the gorge,
feeling his way hastily, and was arrested by the sight of the thing that
was happening in a room in a back street near the school. Both of the
people in the room he knew by sight. The windows were open, the blinds up,
and the setting sun shone clearly into it, so that it came out quite
brightly at first, a vivid oblong of room, lying like a magic-lantern
picture upon the black landscape and the livid green dawn. In addition to
the sunlight, a candle had just been lit in the room.

On the bed lay a lank man, his ghastly white face terrible upon the
tumbled pillow. His clenched hands were raised above his head. A little
table beside the bed carried a few medicine bottles, some toast and water,
and an empty glass. Every now and then the lank man's lips fell apart,
to indicate a word he could not articulate. But the woman did not notice
that he wanted anything, because she was busy turning out papers from an
old-fashioned bureau in the opposite corner of the room. At first the
picture was very vivid indeed, but as the green dawn behind it grew
brighter and brighter, so it became fainter and more and more transparent.

As the echoing footsteps paced nearer and nearer, those footsteps that
sound so loud in that Other-World and come so silently in this, Plattner
perceived about him a great multitude of dim faces gathering together out
of the darkness and watching the two people in the room. Never before had
he seen so many of the Watchers of the Living. A multitude had eyes only
for the sufferer in the room, another multitude, in infinite anguish,
watched the woman as she hunted with greedy eyes for something she could
not find. They crowded about Plattner, they came across his sight and
buffeted his face, the noise of their unavailing regrets was all about
him. He saw clearly only now and then. At other times the picture quivered
dimly, through the veil of green reflections upon their movements. In the
room it must have been very still, and Plattner says the candle flame
streamed up into a perfectly vertical line of smoke, but in his ears each
footfall and its echoes beat like a clap of thunder. And the faces!
Two, more particularly near the woman's: one a woman's also, white and
clear-featured, a face which might have once been cold and hard, but which
was now softened by the touch of a wisdom strange to earth. The other
might have been the woman's father. Both were evidently absorbed in the
contemplation of some act of hateful meanness, so it seemed, which they
could no longer guard against and prevent. Behind were others, teachers,
it may be, who had taught ill, friends whose influence had failed. And
over the man, too--a multitude, but none that seemed to be parents or
teachers! Faces that might once have been coarse, now purged to strength
by sorrow! And in the forefront one face, a girlish one, neither angry nor
remorseful, but merely patient and weary, and, as it seemed to Plattner,
waiting for relief. His powers of description fail him at the memory of
this multitude of ghastly countenances. They gathered on the stroke of the
bell. He saw them all in the space of a second. It would seem that he was
so worked on by his excitement that, quite involuntarily, his restless
fingers took the bottle of green powder out of his pocket and held it
before him. But he does not remember that.

Abruptly the footsteps ceased. He waited for the next, and there was
silence, and then suddenly, cutting through the unexpected stillness like
a keen, thin blade, came the first stroke of the bell. At that the
multitudinous faces swayed to and fro, and a louder crying began all about
him. The woman did not hear; she was burning something now in the candle
flame. At the second stroke everything grew dim, and a breath of wind, icy
cold, blew through the host of watchers. They swirled about him like an
eddy of dead leaves in the spring, and at the third stroke something was
extended through them to the bed. You have heard of a beam of light. This
was like a beam of darkness, and looking again at it, Plattner saw that it
was a shadowy arm and hand.

The green sun was now topping the black desolations of the horizon, and
the vision of the room was very faint. Plattner could see that the white
of the bed struggled, and was convulsed; and that the woman looked round
over her shoulder at it, startled.

The cloud of watchers lifted high like a puff of green dust before the
wind, and swept swiftly downward towards the temple in the gorge. Then
suddenly Plattner understood the meaning of the shadowy black arm that
stretched across his shoulder and clutched its prey. He did not dare turn
his head to see the Shadow behind the arm. With a violent effort, and
covering his eyes, he set himself to run, made, perhaps, twenty strides,
then slipped on a boulder, and fell. He fell forward on his hands; and the
bottle smashed and exploded as he touched the ground.

In another moment he found himself, stunned and bleeding, sitting face to
face with Lidgett in the old walled garden behind the school.

* * * * *

There the story of Plattner's experiences ends. I have resisted, I believe
successfully, the natural disposition of a writer of fiction to dress up
incidents of this sort. I have told the thing as far as possible in the
order in which Plattner told it to me. I have carefully avoided any
attempt at style, effect, or construction. It would have been easy, for
instance, to have worked the scene of the death-bed into a kind of plot in
which Plattner might have been involved. But, quite apart from the
objectionableness of falsifying a most extraordinary true story, any such
trite devices would spoil, to my mind, the peculiar effect of this dark
world, with its livid green illumination and its drifting Watchers of the
Living, which, unseen and unapproachable to us, is yet lying all about us.

It remains to add that a death did actually occur in Vincent Terrace, just
beyond the school garden, and, so far as can be proved, at the moment of
Plattner's return. Deceased was a rate-collector and insurance agent. His
widow, who was much younger than himself, married last month a Mr.
Whymper, a veterinary surgeon of Allbeeding. As the portion of this story
given here has in various forms circulated orally in Sussexville, she has
consented to my use of her name, on condition that I make it distinctly
known that she emphatically contradicts every detail of Plattner's account
of her husband's last moments. She burnt no will, she says, although
Plattner never accused her of doing so; her husband made but one will, and
that just after their marriage. Certainly, from a man who had never seen
it, Plattner's account of the furniture of the room was curiously
accurate.

One other thing, even at the risk of an irksome repetition, I must insist
upon, lest I seem to favour the credulous, superstitious view. Plattner's
absence from the world for nine days is, I think, proved. But that does
not prove his story. It is quite conceivable that even outside space
hallucinations may be possible. That, at least, the reader must bear
distinctly in mind.

XVI.

THE RED ROOM.

"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to
frighten me." And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand.

"It is your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, and glanced
at me askance.

"Eight-and-twenty years," said I, "I have lived, and never a ghost have I
seen as yet."

The old woman sat staring hard into the fire, her pale eyes wide open.
"Ay," she broke in; "and eight-and-twenty years you have lived and never
seen the likes of this house, I reckon. There's a many things to see, when
one's still but eight-and-twenty." She swayed her head slowly from side to
side. "A many things to see and sorrow for."

I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual
terrors of their house by their droning insistence. I put down my empty
glass on the table and looked about the room, and caught a glimpse of
myself, abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness, in the
queer old mirror at the end of the room. "Well," I said, "if I see
anything to-night, I shall be so much the wiser. For I come to the
business with an open mind."

"It's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm once more.

I heard the sound of a stick and a shambling step on the flags in the
passage outside, and the door creaked on its hinges as a second old man
entered, more bent, more wrinkled, more aged even than the first. He
supported himself by a single crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade,
and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying
yellow teeth. He made straight for an arm-chair on the opposite side of
the table, sat down clumsily, and began to cough. The man with the
withered arm gave this new-comer a short glance of positive dislike; the
old woman took no notice of his arrival, but remained with her eyes fixed
steadily on the fire.

"I said--it's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, when
the coughing had ceased for a while.

"It's my own choosing," I answered.

The man with the shade became aware of my presence for the first time, and
threw his head back for a moment and sideways, to see me. I caught a
momentary glimpse of his eyes, small and bright and inflamed. Then he
began to cough and splutter again.

"Why don't you drink?" said the man with the withered arm, pushing the
beer towards him. The man with the shade poured out a glassful with a
shaky hand that splashed half as much again on the deal table. A monstrous
shadow of him crouched upon the wall and mocked his action as he poured
and drank. I must confess I had scarce expected these grotesque
custodians. There is to my mind something inhuman in senility, something
crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people
insensibly day by day. The three of them made me feel uncomfortable, with
their gaunt silences, their bent carriage, their evident unfriendliness to
me and to one another.

"If," said I, "you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will make
myself comfortable there."

The old man with the cough jerked his head back so suddenly that it
startled me, and shot another glance of his red eyes at me from under the
shade; but no one answered me. I waited a minute, glancing from one to the
other.

"If," I said a little louder, "if you will show me to this haunted room of
yours, I will relieve you from the task of entertaining me."

"There's a candle on the slab outside the door," said the man with the
withered arm, looking at my feet as he addressed me. "But if you go to the
red room to-night----"

("This night of all nights!" said the old woman.)

"You go alone."

"Very well," I answered. "And which way do I go?"

"You go along the passage for a bit," said he, "until you come to a door,
and through that is a spiral staircase, and half-way up that is a landing
and another door covered with baize. Go through that and down the long
corridor to the end, and the red room is on your left up the steps."

"Have I got that right?" I said, and repeated his directions. He corrected
me in one particular.

"And are you really going?" said the man with the shade, looking at me
again for the third time, with that queer, unnatural tilting of the face.

("This night of all nights!" said the old woman.)

"It is what I came for," I said, and moved towards the door. As I did so,
the old man with the shade rose and staggered round the table, so as to be
closer to the others and to the fire. At the door I turned and looked at
them, and saw they were all close together, dark against the firelight,
staring at me over their shoulders, with an intent expression on their
ancient faces.

"Good-night," I said, setting the door open.

"It's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm.

I left the door wide open until the candle was well alight, and then I
shut them in and walked down the chilly, echoing passage.

I must confess that the oddness of these three old pensioners in whose
charge her ladyship had left the castle, and the deep-toned, old-fashioned
furniture of the housekeeper's room in which they foregathered, affected
me in spite of my efforts to keep myself at a matter-of-fact phase. They
seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things
spiritual were different from this of ours, less certain; an age when
omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very
existence was spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead
brains. The ornaments and conveniences of the room about them were
ghostly--the thoughts of vanished men, which still haunted rather than
participated in the world of to-day. But with an effort I sent such
thoughts to the right-about. The long, draughty subterranean passage was
chilly and dusty, and my candle flared and made the shadows cower and
quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase, and a shadow
came sweeping up after me, and one fled before me into the darkness
overhead. I came to the landing and stopped there for a moment, listening
to a rustling that I fancied I heard; then, satisfied of the absolute
silence, I pushed open the baize-covered door and stood in the corridor.

The effect was scarcely what I expected, for the moonlight, coming in by
the great window on the grand staircase, picked out everything in vivid
black shadow or silvery illumination. Everything was in its place: the
house might have been deserted on the yesterday instead of eighteen months
ago. There were candles in the sockets of the sconces, and whatever dust
had gathered on the carpets or upon the polished flooring was distributed
so evenly as to be invisible in the moonlight. I was about to advance, and
stopped abruptly. A bronze group stood upon the landing, hidden from me by
the corner of the wall, but its shadow fell with marvellous distinctness
upon the white panelling, and gave me the impression of someone crouching
to waylay me. I stood rigid for half a minute perhaps. Then, with my hand
in the pocket that held my revolver, I advanced, only to discover a
Ganymede and Eagle glistening in the moonlight. That incident for a time
restored my nerve, and a porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head
rocked silently as I passed him, scarcely startled me.

The door to the red room and the steps up to it were in a shadowy corner.
I moved my candle from side to side, in order to see clearly the nature of
the recess in which I stood before opening the door. Here it was, thought
I, that my predecessor was found, and the memory of that story gave me a
sudden twinge of apprehension. I glanced over my shoulder at the Ganymede
in the moonlight, and opened the door of the red room rather hastily, with
my face half turned to the pallid silence of the landing.

I entered, closed the door behind me at once, turned the key I found in
the lock within, and stood with the candle held aloft, surveying the scene
of my vigil, the great red room of Lorraine Castle, in which the young
duke had died. Or, rather, in which he had begun his dying, for he had
opened the door and fallen headlong down the steps I had just ascended.
That had been the end of his vigil, of his gallant attempt to conquer the
ghostly tradition of the place, and never, I thought, had apoplexy better
served the ends of superstition. And there were other and older stories
that clung to the room, back to the half-credible beginning of it all, the
tale of a timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband's jest of
frightening her. And looking around that large sombre room, with its
shadowy window bays, its recesses and alcoves, one could well understand
the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating
darkness. My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness, that
failed to pierce the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of
mystery and suggestion beyond its island of light.

I resolved to make a systematic examination of the place at once, and
dispel the fanciful suggestions of its obscurity before they obtained a
hold upon me. After satisfying myself of the fastening of the door, I
began to walk about the room, peering round each article of furniture,
tucking up the valances of the bed, and opening its curtains wide. I
pulled up the blinds and examined the fastenings of the several windows
before closing the shutters, leant forward and looked up the blackness
of the wide chimney, and tapped the dark oak panelling for any secret
opening. There were two big mirrors in the room, each with a pair of
sconces bearing candles, and on the mantelshelf, too, were more candles in
china candlesticks. All these I lit one after the other. The fire was
laid, an unexpected consideration from the old housekeeper,--and I lit it,
to keep down any disposition to shiver, and when it was burning well, I
stood round with my back to it and regarded the room again. I had pulled
up a chintz-covered arm-chair and a table, to form a kind of barricade
before me, and on this lay my revolver ready to hand. My precise
examination had done me good, but I still found the remoter darkness of
the place, and its perfect stillness, too stimulating for the imagination.
The echoing of the stir and crackling of the fire was no sort of comfort
to me. The shadow in the alcove at the end in particular, had that
undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking,
living thing, that comes so easily in silence and solitude. At last, to
reassure myself, I walked with a candle into it, and satisfied myself that
there was nothing tangible there. I stood that candle upon the floor of
the alcove, and left it in that position.

By this time I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to
my reason there was no adequate cause for the condition. My mind, however,
was perfectly clear. I postulated quite unreservedly that nothing
supernatural could happen, and to pass the time I began to string some
rhymes together, Ingoldsby fashion, of the original legend of the place. A
few I spoke aloud, but the echoes were not pleasant. For the same reason I
also abandoned, after a time, a conversation with myself upon the
impossibility of ghosts and haunting. My mind reverted to the three old
and distorted people downstairs, and I tried to keep it upon that topic.
The sombre reds and blacks of the room troubled, me; even with seven
candles the place was merely dim. The one in the alcove flared in a
draught, and the fire-flickering kept the shadows and penumbra perpetually
shifting and stirring. Casting about for a remedy, I recalled the candles
I had seen in the passage, and, with a slight effort, walked out into the
moonlight, carrying a candle and leaving the door open, and presently
returned with as many as ten. These I put in various knick-knacks of china
with which the room was sparsely adorned, lit and placed where the shadows
had lain deepest, some on the floor, some in the window recesses, until at
last my seventeen candles were so arranged that not an inch of the room
but had the direct light of at least one of them. It occurred to me that
when the ghost came, I could warn him not to trip over them. The room was
now quite brightly illuminated. There was something very cheery and
reassuring in these little streaming flames, and snuffing them gave me an
occupation, and afforded a helpful sense of the passage of time. Even with
that, however, the brooding expectation of the vigil weighed heavily upon
me. It was after midnight that the candle in the alcove suddenly went out,
and the black shadow sprang back to its place there. I did not see the
candle go out; I simply turned and saw that the darkness was there, as one
might start and see the unexpected presence of a stranger. "By Jove!" said
I aloud; "that draught's a strong one!" and, taking the matches from the
table, I walked across the room in a leisurely manner, to relight the
corner again. My first match would not strike, and as I succeeded with the
second, something seemed to blink on the wall before me. I turned my head
involuntarily, and saw that the two candles on the little table by the
fireplace were extinguished. I rose at once to my feet.

"Odd!" I said. "Did I do that myself in a flash of absent-mindedness?"

I walked back, relit one, and as I did so, I saw the candle in the right
sconce of one of the mirrors wink and go right out, and almost immediately
its companion followed it. There was no mistake about it. The flame
vanished, as if the wicks had been suddenly nipped between a finger and a
thumb, leaving the wick neither glowing nor smoking, but black. While I
stood gaping, the candle at the foot of the bed went out, and the shadows
seemed to take another step towards me.

"This won't do!" said I, and first one and then another candle on the
mantelshelf followed.

"What's up?" I cried, with a queer high note getting into my voice
somehow. At that the candle on the wardrobe went out, and the one I had
relit in the alcove followed.

"Steady on!" I said. "These candles are wanted," speaking with a
half-hysterical facetiousness, and scratching away at a match the while
for the mantel candlesticks. My hands trembled so much that twice I missed
the rough paper of the matchbox. As the mantel emerged from darkness again,
two candles in the remoter end of the window were eclipsed. But with the
same match I also relit the larger mirror candles, and those on the floor
near the doorway, so that for the moment I seemed to gain on the
extinctions. But then in a volley there vanished four lights at once in
different corners of the room, and I struck another match in quivering
haste, and stood hesitating whither to take it.

As I stood undecided, an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two
candles on the table. With a cry of terror, I dashed at the alcove, then
into the corner, and then into the window, relighting three, as two more
vanished by the fireplace; then, perceiving a better way, I dropped the
matches on the iron-bound deed-box in the corner, and caught up the
bedroom candlestick. With this I avoided the delay of striking matches;
but for all that the steady process of extinction went on, and the shadows
I feared and fought against returned, and crept in upon me, first a
step gained on this side of me and then on that. It was like a ragged
storm-cloud sweeping out the stars. Now and then one returned for a
minute, and was lost again. I was now almost frantic with the horror of
the coming darkness, and my self-possession deserted me. I leaped panting
and dishevelled from candle to candle, in a vain struggle against that
remorseless advance.

I bruised myself on the thigh against the table, I sent a chair headlong,
I stumbled and fell and whisked the cloth from the table in my fall. My
candle rolled away from me, and I snatched another as I rose. Abruptly
this was blown out, as I swung it off the table by the wind of my sudden
movement, and immediately the two remaining candles followed. But there
was light still in the room, a red light that staved off the shadows from
me. The fire! Of course I could still thrust my candle between the bars
and relight it!

I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals,
and splashing red reflections upon the furniture, made two steps towards
the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow
vanished, the reflections rushed together and vanished, and as I thrust
the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of
an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and
crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain. The candle fell from my
hand. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous
blackness away from me, and, lifting up my voice, screamed with all my
might--once, twice, thrice. Then I think I must have staggered to my feet.
I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and, with my head bowed
and my arms over my face, made a run for the door.

But I had forgotten the exact position of the door, and struck myself
heavily against the corner of the bed. I staggered back, turned, and was
either struck or struck myself against some other bulky furniture. I have
a vague memory of battering myself thus, to and fro in the darkness, of a
cramped struggle, and of my own wild crying as I darted to and fro, of a
heavy blow at last upon my forehead, a horrible sensation of falling that
lasted an age, of my last frantic effort to keep my footing, and then I
remember no more.

I opened my eyes in daylight. My head was roughly bandaged, and the man
with the withered arm was watching my face. I looked about me, trying to
remember what had happened, and for a space I could not recollect. I
rolled my eyes into the corner, and saw the old woman, no longer
abstracted, pouring out some drops of medicine from a little blue phial
into a glass. "Where am I?" I asked; "I seem to remember you, and yet I
cannot remember who you are."

They told me then, and I heard of the haunted Red Room as one who hears a
tale. "We found you at dawn," said he, "and there was blood on your
forehead and lips."

It was very slowly I recovered my memory of my experience. "You believe
now," said the old man, "that the room is haunted?" He spoke no longer as
one who greets an intruder, but as one who grieves for a broken friend.

"Yes," said I; "the room is haunted."

"And you have seen it. And we, who have lived here all our lives, have
never set eyes upon it. Because we have never dared... Tell us, is it
truly the old earl who----"

"No," said I; "it is not."

"I told you so," said the old lady, with the glass in her hand. "It is his
poor young countess who was frightened----"

"It is not," I said. "There is neither ghost of earl nor ghost of countess
in that room, there is no ghost there at all; but worse, far worse----"

"Well?" they said.

"The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man," said I; "and
that is, in all its nakedness--Fear that will not have light nor sound,
that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.
It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room----"

I stopped abruptly. There was an interval of silence. My hand went up to
my bandages.

Then the man with the shade sighed and spoke. "That is it," said he. "I
knew that was it. A power of darkness. To put such a curse upon a woman!
It lurks there always. You can feel it even in the daytime, even of a
bright summer's day, in the hangings, in the curtains, keeping behind you
however you face about. In the dusk it creeps along the corridor and
follows you, so that you dare not turn. There is Fear in that room of
hers--black Fear, and there will be--so long as this house of sin
endures."

XVII.

THE PURPLE PILEUS

Mr. Coombes was sick of life. He walked away from his unhappy home, and,
sick not only of his own existence but of everybody else's, turned aside
down Gaswork Lane to avoid the town, and, crossing the wooden bridge that
goes over the canal to Starling's Cottages, was presently alone in the
damp pine woods and out of sight and sound of human habitation. He would
stand it no longer. He repeated aloud with blasphemies unusual to him that
he would stand it no longer.

He was a pale-faced little man, with dark eyes and a fine and very black
moustache. He had a very stiff, upright collar slightly frayed, that gave
him an illusory double chin, and his overcoat (albeit shabby) was trimmed
with astrachan. His gloves were a bright brown with black stripes over the
knuckles, and split at the finger ends. His appearance, his wife had said
once in the dear, dead days beyond recall--before he married her, that
is--was military. But now she called him--it seems a dreadful thing to
tell of between husband and wife, but she called him "a little grub." It
wasn't the only thing she had called him, either.

The row had arisen about that beastly Jennie again. Jennie was his wife's
friend, and, by no invitation of Mr. Coombes, she came in every blessed
Sunday to dinner, and made a shindy all the afternoon. She was a big,
noisy girl, with a taste for loud colours and a strident laugh; and this
Sunday she had outdone all her previous intrusions by bringing in a fellow
with her, a chap as showy as herself. And Mr. Coombes, in a starchy, clean
collar and his Sunday frock-coat, had sat dumb and wrathful at his own
table, while his wife and her guests talked foolishly and undesirably, and
laughed aloud. Well, he stood that, and after dinner (which, "as usual,"
was late), what must Miss Jennie do but go to the piano and play banjo
tunes, for all the world as if it were a week-day! Flesh and blood could
not endure such goings on. They would hear next door, they would hear in
the road, it was a public announcement of their disrepute. He had to
speak.

He had felt himself go pale, and a kind of rigour had affected his
respiration as he delivered himself. He had been sitting on one of the
chairs by the window--the new guest had taken possession of the arm-chair.
He turned his head. "Sun Day!" he said over the collar, in the voice of
one who warns. "Sun Day!" What people call a "nasty" tone, it was.

Jennie had kept on playing, but his wife, who was looking through some
music that was piled on the top of the piano, had stared at him. "What's
wrong now?" she said; "can't people enjoy themselves?"

"I don't mind rational 'njoyment, at all," said little Coombes, "but I
ain't a-going to have week-day tunes playing on a Sunday in this house."

"What's wrong with my playing now?" said Jennie, stopping and twirling
round on the music-stool with a monstrous rustle of flounces.

Coombes saw it was going to be a row, and opened too vigorously, as is
common with your timid, nervous men all the world over. "Steady on with
that music-stool!" said he; "it ain't made for 'eavy-weights."

"Never you mind about weights," said Jennie, incensed. "What was you
saying behind my back about my playing?"

"Surely you don't 'old with not having a bit of music on a Sunday, Mr.
Coombes?" said the new guest, leaning back in the arm-chair, blowing a
cloud of cigarette smoke and smiling in a kind of pitying way. And
simultaneously his wife said something to Jennie about "Never mind 'im.
You go on, Jinny."

"I do," said Mr. Coombes, addressing the new guest.

"May I arst why?" said the new guest, evidently enjoying both his
cigarette and the prospect of an argument. He was, by-the-by, a lank young
man, very stylishly dressed in bright drab, with a white cravat and a
pearl and silver pin. It had been better taste to come in a black coat,
Mr. Coombes thought.

"Because," began Mr. Coombes, "it don't suit me. I'm a business man. I
'ave to study my connection. Rational 'njoyment--"

"His connection!" said Mrs. Coombes scornfully. "That's what he's always
a-saying. We got to do this, and we got to do that--"

"If you don't mean to study my connection," said Mr. Coombes, "what did
you marry me for?"

"I wonder," said Jennie, and turned back to the piano.

"I never saw such a man as you," said Mrs. Coombes.

"You've altered all round since we were married. Before--"

Then Jennie began at the turn, turn, turn again.

"Look here!" said Mr. Coombes, driven at last to revolt, standing up and
raising his voice. "I tell you I won't have that." The frock-coat heaved
with his indignation.

"No vi'lence, now," said the long young man in drab, sitting up.

"Who the juice are you?" said Mr. Coombes fiercely.

Whereupon they all began talking at once. The new guest said he was
Jennie's "intended," and meant to protect her, and Mr. Coombes said he was
welcome to do so anywhere but in his (Mr. Coombes') house; and Mrs.
Coombes said he ought to be ashamed of insulting his guests, and (as I
have already mentioned) that he was getting a regular little grub; and the
end was, that Mr. Coombes ordered his visitors out of the house, and they
wouldn't go, and so he said he would go himself. With his face burning and
tears of excitement in his eyes, he went into the passage, and as he
struggled with his overcoat--his frock-coat sleeves got concertinaed up
his arm--and gave a brush at his silk hat, Jennie began again at the
piano, and strummed him insultingly out of the house. Turn, turn, turn. He
slammed the shop door so that the house quivered. That, briefly, was the
immediate making of his mood. You will perhaps begin to understand his
disgust with existence.

As he walked along the muddy path under the firs,--it was late October,
and the ditches and heaps of fir needles were gorgeous with clumps of
fungi,--he recapitulated the melancholy history of his marriage. It was
brief and commonplace enough. He now perceived with sufficient clearness
that his wife had married him out of a natural curiosity and in order to
escape from her worrying, laborious, and uncertain life in the workroom;
and, like the majority of her class, she was far too stupid to realise
that it was her duty to co-operate with him in his business. She was
greedy of enjoyment, loquacious, and socially-minded, and evidently
disappointed to find the restraints of poverty still hanging about her.
His worries exasperated her, and the slightest attempt to control her
proceedings resulted in a charge of "grumbling." Why couldn't he be nice--
as he used to be? And Coombes was such a harmless little man, too,
nourished mentally on _Self-Help_, and with a meagre ambition of
self-denial and competition, that was to end in a "sufficiency." Then
Jennie came in as a female Mephistopheles, a gabbling chronicle of
"fellers," and was always wanting his wife to go to theatres, and "all
that." And in addition were aunts of his wife, and cousins (male and
female) to eat up capital, insult him personally, upset business
arrangements, annoy good customers, and generally blight his life. It was
not the first occasion by many that Mr. Coombes had fled his home in wrath
and indignation, and something like fear, vowing furiously and even aloud
that he wouldn't stand it, and so frothing away his energy along the line
of least resistance. But never before had he been quite so sick of life as
on this particular Sunday afternoon. The Sunday dinner may have had its
share in his despair--and the greyness of the sky. Perhaps, too, he was
beginning to realise his unendurable frustration as a business man as the
consequence of his marriage. Presently bankruptcy, and after that----
Perhaps she might have reason to repent when it was too late. And destiny,
as I have already intimated, had planted the path through the wood with
evil-smelling fungi, thickly and variously planted it, not only on the
right side, but on the left.

A small shopman is in such a melancholy position, if his wife turns out a
disloyal partner. His capital is all tied up in his business, and to leave
her means to join the unemployed in some strange part of the earth. The
luxuries of divorce are beyond him altogether. So that the good old
tradition of marriage for better or worse holds inexorably for him, and
things work up to tragic culminations. Bricklayers kick their wives to
death, and dukes betray theirs; but it is among the small clerks and
shopkeepers nowadays that it comes most often to a cutting of throats.
Under the circumstances it is not so very remarkable--and you must take it
as charitably as you can--that the mind of Mr. Coombes ran for a while on
some such glorious close to his disappointed hopes, and that he thought of
razors, pistols, bread-knives, and touching letters to the coroner
denouncing his enemies by name, and praying piously for forgiveness. After
a time his fierceness gave way to melancholia. He had been married in this
very overcoat, in his first and only frock-coat that was buttoned up
beneath it. He began to recall their courting along this very walk, his
years of penurious saving to get capital, and the bright hopefulness of
his marrying days. For it all to work out like this! Was there no
sympathetic ruler anywhere in the world? He reverted to death as a topic.

He thought of the canal he had just crossed, and doubted whether he
shouldn't stand with his head out, even in the middle, and it was while
drowning was in his mind that the purple pileus caught his eye. He looked
at it mechanically for a moment, and stopped and stooped towards it to
pick it up, under the impression that it was some such small leather
object as a purse. Then he saw that it was the purple top of a fungus, a
peculiarly poisonous-looking purple: slimy, shiny, and emitting a sour
odour. He hesitated with his hand an inch or so from it, and the thought
of poison crossed his mind. With that he picked the thing, and stood up
again with it in his hand.

The odour was certainly strong--acrid, but by no means disgusting. He
broke off a piece, and the fresh surface was a creamy white, that changed
like magic in the space of ten seconds to a yellowish-green colour. It was
even an inviting-looking change. He broke off two other pieces to see it
repeated. They were wonderful things these fungi, thought Mr. Coombes, and
all of them the deadliest poisons, as his father had often told him.
Deadly poisons!

There is no time like the present for a rash resolve. Why not here and
now? thought Mr. Coombes. He tasted a little piece, a very little piece
indeed--a mere crumb. It was so pungent that he almost spat it out again,
then merely hot and full-flavoured: a kind of German mustard with a touch
of horse-radish and--well, mushroom. He swallowed it in the excitement of
the moment. Did he like it or did he not? His mind was curiously careless.
He would try another bit. It really wasn't bad--it was good. He forgot his
troubles in the interest of the immediate moment. Playing with death it
was. He took another bite, and then deliberately finished a mouthful. A
curious, tingling sensation began in his finger-tips and toes. His pulse
began to move faster. The blood in his ears sounded like a mill-race. "Try
bi' more," said Mr. Coombes. He turned and looked about him, and found his
feet unsteady. He saw, and struggled towards, a little patch of purple a
dozen yards away. "Jol' goo' stuff," said Mr. Coombes. "E--lomore ye'." He
pitched forward and fell on his face, his hands outstretched towards the
cluster of pilei. But he did not eat any more of them. He forgot
forthwith.

He rolled over and sat up with a look of astonishment on his face. His
carefully brushed silk hat had rolled away towards the ditch. He pressed
his hand to his brow. Something had happened, but he could not rightly
determine what it was. Anyhow, he was no longer dull--he felt bright,
cheerful. And his throat was afire. He laughed in the sudden gaiety of his
heart. Had he been dull? He did not know; but at any rate he would be dull
no longer. He got up and stood unsteadily, regarding the universe with an
agreeable smile. He began to remember. He could not remember very well,
because of a steam roundabout that was beginning in his head. And he knew
he had been disagreeable at home, just because they wanted to be happy.
They were quite right; life should be as gay as possible. He would go home
and make it up, and reassure them. And why not take some of this
delightful toadstool with him, for them to eat? A hatful, no less. Some of
those red ones with white spots as well, and a few yellow. He had been a
dull dog, an enemy to merriment; he would make up for it. It would be gay
to turn his coat-sleeves inside out, and stick some yellow gorse into his
waistcoat pockets. Then home--singing---for a jolly evening.

After the departure of Mr. Coombes, Jennie discontinued playing, and
turned round on the music-stool again. "What a fuss about nothing!" said
Jennie.

"You see, Mr. Clarence, what I've got to put up with," said Mrs. Coombes.

"He is a bit hasty," said Mr. Clarence judicially.

"He ain't got the slightest sense of our position," said Mrs. Coombes;
"that's what I complain of. He cares for nothing but his old shop; and if
I have a bit of company, or buy anything to keep myself decent, or get any
little thing I want out of the housekeeping money, there's disagreeables.
'Economy' he says; 'struggle for life,' and all that. He lies awake of
nights about it, worrying how he can screw me out of a shilling. He wanted
us to eat Dorset butter once. If once I was to give in to him--there!"

"Of course," said Jennie.

"If a man values a woman," said Mr. Clarence, lounging back in the
arm-chair, "he must be prepared to make sacrifices for her. For my own
part," said Mr. Clarence, with his eye on Jennie, "I shouldn't think of
marrying till I was in a position to do the thing in style. It's downright
selfishness. A man ought to go through the rough-and-tumble by himself,
and not drag her--"

"I don't agree altogether with that," said Jennie. "I don't see why a man
shouldn't have a woman's help, provided he doesn't treat her meanly, you
know. It's meanness--"

"You wouldn't believe," said Mrs. Coombes. "But I was a fool to 'ave 'im.
I might 'ave known. If it 'adn't been for my father, we shouldn't 'ave 'ad
not a carriage to our wedding."

"Lord! he didn't stick out at that?" said Mr. Clarence, quite shocked.

"Said he wanted the money for his stock, or some such rubbish. Why, he
wouldn't have a woman in to help me once a week if it wasn't for my
standing out plucky. And the fusses he makes about money--comes to me,
well, pretty near crying, with sheets of paper and figgers. 'If only we
can tide over this year,' he says, 'the business is bound to go.' 'If only
we can tide over this year,' I says; 'then it'll be, if only we can tide
over next year. I know you,' I says. 'And you don't catch me screwing
myself lean and ugly. Why didn't you marry a slavey?' I says, 'if you
wanted one--instead of a respectable girl,' I says."

So Mrs. Coombes. But we will not follow this unedifying conversation
further. Suffice it that Mr. Coombes was very satisfactorily disposed of,
and they had a snug little time round the fire. Then Mrs. Coombes went to
get the tea, and Jennie sat coquettishly on the arm of Mr. Clarence's
chair until the tea-things clattered outside. "What was that I heard?"
asked Mrs. Coombes playfully, as she entered, and there was badinage about
kissing. They were just sitting down to the little circular table when the
first intimation of Mr. Coombes' return was heard.

This was a fumbling at the latch of the front door.

"'Ere's my lord," said Mrs. Coombes. "Went out like a lion and comes back
like a lamb, I'll lay."

Something fell over in the shop: a chair, it sounded like. Then there was
a sound as of some complicated step exercise in the passage. Then the door
opened and Coombes appeared. But it was Coombes transfigured. The
immaculate collar had been torn carelessly from his throat. His
carefully-brushed silk hat, half-full of a crush of fungi, was under one
arm; his coat was inside out, and his waistcoat adorned with bunches of
yellow-blossomed furze. These little eccentricities of Sunday costume,
however, were quite overshadowed by the change in his face; it was livid
white, his eyes were unnaturally large and bright, and his pale blue lips
were drawn back in a cheerless grin. "Merry!" he said. He had stopped
dancing to open the door. "Rational 'njoyment. Dance." He made three
fantastic steps into the room, and stood bowing.

"Jim!" shrieked Mrs. Coombes, and Mr. Clarence sat petrified, with a
dropping lower jaw.

"Tea," said Mr. Coombes. "Jol' thing, tea. Tose-stools, too. Brosher."

"He's drunk," said Jennie in a weak voice. Never before had she seen this
intense pallor in a drunken man, or such shining, dilated eyes.

Mr. Coombes held out a handful of scarlet agaric to Mr. Clarence. "Jo'
stuff," said he; "ta' some."

At that moment he was genial. Then at the sight of their startled faces he
changed, with the swift transition of insanity, into overbearing fury. And
it seemed as if he had suddenly recalled the quarrel of his departure. In
such a huge voice as Mrs. Coombes had never heard before, he shouted, "My
house. I'm master 'ere. Eat what I give yer!" He bawled this, as it
seemed, without an effort, without a violent gesture, standing there as
motionless as one who whispers, holding out a handful of fungus.

Clarence approved himself a coward. He could not meet the mad fury in
Coombes' eyes; he rose to his feet, pushing back his chair, and turned,
stooping. At that Coombes rushed at him. Jennie saw her opportunity, and,
with the ghost of a shriek, made for the door.

Mrs. Coombes followed her. Clarence tried to dodge. Over went the
tea-table with a smash as Coombes clutched him by the collar and tried to
thrust the fungus into his mouth. Clarence was content to leave his collar
behind him, and shot out into the passage with red patches of fly agaric
still adherent to his face. "Shut 'im in!" cried Mrs. Coombes, and would
have closed the door, but her supports deserted her; Jennie saw the shop
door open, and vanished thereby, locking it behind her, while Clarence
went on hastily into the kitchen. Mr. Coombes came heavily against the
door, and Mrs. Coombes, finding the key was inside, fled upstairs and
locked herself in the spare bedroom.

So the new convert to _joie de vivre_ emerged upon the passage, his
decorations a little scattered, but that respectable hatful of fungi still
under his arm. He hesitated at the three ways, and decided on the kitchen.
Whereupon Clarence, who was fumbling with the key, gave up the attempt to
imprison his host, and fled into the scullery, only to be captured before
he could open the door into the yard. Mr. Clarence is singularly reticent
of the details of what occurred. It seems that Mr. Coombes' transitory
irritation had vanished again, and he was once more a genial playfellow.
And as there were knives and meat choppers about, Clarence very generously
resolved to humour him and so avoid anything tragic. It is beyond dispute
that Mr. Coombes played with Mr. Clarence to his heart's content; they
could not have been more playful and familiar if they had known each other
for years. He insisted gaily on Clarence trying the fungi, and, after a
friendly tussle, was smitten with remorse at the mess he was making of his
guest's face. It also appears that Clarence was dragged under the sink and
his face scrubbed with the blacking brush--he being still resolved to
humour the lunatic at any cost--and that finally, in a somewhat
dishevelled, chipped, and discoloured condition, he was assisted to his
coat and shown out by the back door, the shopway being barred by Jennie.
Mr. Coombes' wandering thoughts then turned to Jennie. Jennie had been
unable to unfasten the shop door, but she shot the bolts against Mr.
Coombes' latch-key, and remained in possession of the shop for the rest of
the evening.

It would appear that Mr. Coombes then returned to the kitchen, still in
pursuit of gaiety, and, albeit a strict Good Templar, drank (or spilt down
the front of the first and only frock-coat) no less than five bottles of
the stout Mrs. Coombes insisted upon having for her health's sake. He made
cheerful noises by breaking off the necks of the bottles with several of
his wife's wedding-present dinner-plates, and during the earlier part of
this great drunk he sang divers merry ballads. He cut his finger rather
badly with one of the bottles--the only bloodshed in this story--and what
with that, and the systematic convulsion of his inexperienced physiology
by the liquorish brand of Mrs. Coombes' stout, it may be the evil of the
fungus poison was somehow allayed. But we prefer to draw a veil over the
concluding incidents of this Sunday afternoon. They ended in the coal
cellar, in a deep and healing sleep.

An interval of five years elapsed. Again it was a Sunday afternoon in
October, and again Mr. Coombes walked through the pine wood beyond the
canal. He was still the same dark-eyed, black-moustached little man that
he was at the outset of the story, but his double chin was now scarcely so
illusory as it had been. His overcoat was new, with a velvet lapel, and a
stylish collar with turn-down corners, free of any coarse starchiness, had
replaced the original all-round article. His hat was glossy, his gloves
newish--though one finger had split and been carefully mended. And a
casual observer would have noticed about him a certain rectitude of
bearing, a certain erectness of head that marks the man who thinks well of
himself. He was a master now, with three assistants. Beside him walked a
larger sunburnt parody of himself, his brother Tom, just back from
Australia. They were recapitulating their early struggles, and Mr. Coombes
had just been making a financial statement.

"It's a very nice little business, Jim," said brother Tom. "In these days
of competition you're jolly lucky to have worked it up so. And you're
jolly lucky, too, to have a wife who's willing to help like yours does."

"Between ourselves," said Mr. Coombes, "it wasn't always so. It wasn't
always like this. To begin with, the missus was a bit giddy. Girls are
funny creatures."

"Dear me!"

"Yes. You'd hardly think it, but she was downright extravagant, and always
having slaps at me. I was a bit too easy and loving, and all that, and she
thought the whole blessed show was run for her. Turned the 'ouse into a
regular caravansery, always having her relations and girls from business
in, and their chaps. Comic songs a' Sunday, it was getting to, and driving
trade away. And she was making eyes at the chaps, too! I tell you, Tom,
the place wasn't my own."

"Shouldn't 'a' thought it."

"It was so. Well--I reasoned with her. I said, 'I ain't a duke, to keep a
wife like a pet animal. I married you for 'elp and company.' I said, 'You
got to 'elp and pull the business through.' She wouldn't 'ear of it. 'Very
well,' I says?? 'I'm a mild man till I'm roused,' I says, 'and it's
getting to that.' But she wouldn't 'ear of no warnings."

"Well?"

"It's the way with women. She didn't think I 'ad it in me to be roused.
Women of her sort (between ourselves, Tom) don't respect a man until
they're a bit afraid of him. So I just broke out to show her. In comes a
girl named Jennie, that used to work with her, and her chap. We 'ad a bit
of a row, and I came out 'ere--it was just such another day as this--and I
thought it all out. Then I went back and pitched into them."

"You did?"

"I did. I was mad, I can tell you. I wasn't going to 'it 'er if I could
'elp it, so I went back and licked into this chap, just to show 'er what I
could do. 'E was a big chap, too. Well, I chucked him, and smashed things
about, and gave 'er a scaring, and she ran up and locked 'erself into the
spare room."

"Well?"

"That's all. I says to 'er the next morning, 'Now you know,' I says, 'what
I'm like when I'm roused.' And I didn't have to say anything more."

"And you've been happy ever after, eh?"

"So to speak. There's nothing like putting your foot down with them. If it
'adn't been for that afternoon I should 'a' been tramping the roads now,
and she'd 'a' been grumbling at me, and all her family grumbling for
bringing her to poverty--I know their little ways. But we're all right
now. And it's a very decent little business, as you say."

They proceeded on their way meditatively. "Women are funny creatures,"
said Brother Tom.

"They want a firm hand," says Coombes.

"What a lot of these funguses there are about here!" remarked Brother Tom
presently. "I can't see what use they are in the world."

Mr. Coombes looked. "I dessay they're sent for some wise purpose," said
Mr. Coombes.

And that was as much thanks as the purple pileus ever got for maddening
this absurd little man to the pitch of decisive action, and so altering
the whole course of his life.

XVIII.

A SLIP UNDER THE MICROSCOPE.

Outside the laboratory windows was a watery-grey fog, and within a close
warmth and the yellow light of the green-shaded gas lamps that stood two
to each table down its narrow length. On each table stood a couple of
glass jars containing the mangled vestiges of the crayfish, mussels,
frogs, and guinea-pigs upon which the students had been working, and down
the side of the room, facing the windows, were shelves bearing bleached
dissections in spirits, surmounted by a row of beautifully executed
anatomical drawings in white-wood frames and overhanging a row of cubical
lockers. All the doors of the laboratory were panelled with blackboard,
and on these were the half-erased diagrams of the previous day's work. The
laboratory was empty, save for the demonstrator, who sat near the
preparation-room door, and silent, save for a low, continuous murmur and
the clicking of the rocker microtome at which he was working. But
scattered about the room were traces of numerous students: hand-bags,
polished boxes of instruments, in one place a large drawing covered by
newspaper, and in another a prettily bound copy of _News from
Nowhere_, a book oddly at variance with its surroundings. These things
had been put down hastily as the students had arrived and hurried at once
to secure their seats in the adjacent lecture theatre. Deadened by the
closed door, the measured accents of the professor sounded as a
featureless muttering.

Presently, faint through the closed windows came the sound of the Oratory
clock striking the hour of eleven. The clicking of the microtome ceased,
and the demonstrator looked at his watch, rose, thrust his hands into his
pockets, and walked slowly down the laboratory towards the lecture theatre
door. He stood listening for a moment, and then his eye fell on the little
volume by William Morris. He picked it up, glanced at the title, smiled,
opened it, looked at the name on the fly-leaf, ran the leaves through with
his hand, and put it down. Almost immediately the even murmur of the
lecturer ceased, there was a sudden burst of pencils rattling on the desks
in the lecture theatre, a stirring, a scraping of feet, and a number of
voices speaking together. Then a firm footfall approached the door, which
began to open, and stood ajar, as some indistinctly heard question
arrested the new-comer.

The demonstrator turned, walked slowly back past the microtome, and left
the laboratory by the preparation-room door. As he did so, first one, and
then several students carrying notebooks entered the laboratory from the
lecture theatre, and distributed themselves among the little tables, or
stood in a group about the doorway. They were an exceptionally
heterogeneous assembly, for while Oxford and Cambridge still recoil from
the blushing prospect of mixed classes, the College of Science anticipated
America in the matter years ago--mixed socially, too, for the prestige of
the College is high, and its scholarships, free of any age limit, dredge
deeper even than do those of the Scotch universities. The class numbered
one-and-twenty, but some remained in the theatre questioning the
professor, copying the black-board diagrams before they were washed off,
or examining the special specimens he had produced to illustrate the day's
teaching. Of the nine who had come into the laboratory three were girls,
one of whom, a little fair woman, wearing spectacles and dressed in
greyish-green, was peering out of the window at the fog, while the other
two, both wholesome-looking, plain-faced schoolgirls, unrolled and put on
the brown holland aprons they wore while dissecting. Of the men, two went
down the laboratory to their places, one a pallid, dark-bearded man, who
had once been a tailor; the other a pleasant-featured, ruddy young man of
twenty, dressed in a well-fitting brown suit; young Wedderburn, the son of
Wedderburn, the eye specialist. The others formed a little knot near the
theatre door. One of these, a dwarfed, spectacled figure, with a
hunchback, sat on a bent wood stool; two others, one a short, dark
youngster, and the other a flaxen-haired, reddish-complexioned young man,
stood leaning side by side against the slate sink, while the fourth stood
facing them, and maintained the larger share of the conversation.

This last person was named Hill. He was a sturdily built young fellow, of
the same age as Wedderburn; he had a white face, dark grey eyes, hair of
an indeterminate colour, and prominent, irregular features. He talked
rather louder than was needful, and thrust his hands deeply into his
pockets. His collar was frayed and blue with the starch of a careless
laundress, his clothes were evidently ready-made, and there was a patch on
the side of his boot near the toe. And as he talked or listened to the
others, he glanced now and again towards the lecture theatre door. They
were discussing the depressing peroration of the lecture they had just
heard, the last lecture it was in the introductory course in zoology.
"From ovum to ovum is the goal of the higher vertebrata," the lecturer had
said in his melancholy tones, and so had neatly rounded off the sketch
of comparative anatomy he had been developing. The spectacled hunchback
had repeated it, with noisy appreciation, had tossed it towards the
fair-haired student with an evident provocation, and had started one of
these vague, rambling discussions on generalities, so unaccountably dear
to the student mind all the world over.

"That is our goal, perhaps--I admit it, as far as science goes," said the
fair-haired student, rising to the challenge. "But there are things above
science."

"Science," said Hill confidently, "is systematic knowledge. Ideas that
don't come into the system--must anyhow--be loose ideas." He was not quite
sure whether that was a clever saying or a fatuity until his hearers took
it seriously.

"The thing I cannot understand," said the hunchback, at large, "is whether
Hill is a materialist or not."

"There is one thing above matter," said Hill promptly, feeling he had a
better thing this time; aware, too, of someone in the doorway behind him,
and raising his voice a trifle for her benefit, "and that is, the delusion
that there is something above matter."

"So we have your gospel at last," said the fair student. "It's all a
delusion, is it? All our aspirations to lead something more than dogs'
lives, all our work for anything beyond ourselves. But see how
inconsistent you are. Your socialism, for instance. Why do you trouble
about the interests of the race? Why do you concern yourself about the
beggar in the gutter? Why are you bothering yourself to lend that book "--
he indicated William Morris by a movement of the head--"to everyone in the
lab.?"

"Girl," said the hunchback indistinctly, and glanced guiltily over his
shoulder.

The girl in brown, with the brown eyes, had come into the laboratory, and
stood on the other side of the table behind him, with her rolled-up apron
in one hand, looking over her shoulder, listening to the discussion. She
did not notice the hunchback, because she was glancing from Hill to his
interlocutor. Hill's consciousness of her presence betrayed itself to her
only in his studious ignorance of the fact; but she understood that, and
it pleased her. "I see no reason," said he, "why a man should live like a
brute because he knows of nothing beyond matter, and does not expect to
exist a hundred years hence."

"Why shouldn't he?" said the fair-haired student.

"Why _should_ he?" said Hill.

"What inducement has he?"

"That's the way with all you religious people. It's all a business of
inducements. Cannot a man seek after righteousness for righteousness'
sake?"

There was a pause. The fair man answered, with a kind of vocal padding,
"But--you see--inducement--when I said inducement," to gain time. And then
the hunchback came to his rescue and inserted a question. He was a
terrible person in the debating society with his questions, and they
invariably took one form--a demand for a definition, "What's your
definition of righteousness?" said the hunchback at this stage.

Hill experienced a sudden loss of complacency at this question, but even
as it was asked, relief came in the person of Brooks, the laboratory
attendant, who entered by the preparation-room door, carrying a number of
freshly killed guinea-pigs by their hind legs. "This is the last batch of
material this session," said the youngster who had not previously spoken.
Brooks advanced up the laboratory, smacking down a couple of guinea-pigs
at each table. The rest of the class, scenting the prey from afar, came
crowding in by the lecture theatre door, and the discussion perished
abruptly as the students who were not already in their places hurried to
them to secure the choice of a specimen. There was a noise of keys
rattling on split rings as lockers were opened and dissecting instruments
taken out. Hill was already standing by his table, and his box of scalpels
was sticking out of his pocket. The girl in brown came a step towards him,
and, leaning over his table, said softly, "Did you see that I returned
your book, Mr. Hill?"

During the whole scene she and the book had been vividly present in his
consciousness; but he made a clumsy pretence of looking at the book and
seeing it for the first time. "Oh, yes," he said, taking it up. "I see.
Did you like it?"

"I want to ask you some questions about it--some time."

"Certainly," said Hill. "I shall be glad." He stopped awkwardly. "You
liked it?" he said.

"It's a wonderful book. Only some things I don't understand."

Then suddenly the laboratory was hushed by a curious, braying noise. It
was the demonstrator. He was at the blackboard ready to begin the day's
instruction, and it was his custom to demand silence by a sound midway
between the "Er" of common intercourse and the blast of a trumpet. The
girl in brown slipped back to her place: it was immediately in front of
Hill's, and Hill, forgetting her forthwith, took a notebook out of the
drawer of his table, turned over its leaves hastily, drew a stumpy pencil
from his pocket, and prepared to make a copious note of the coming
demonstration. For demonstrations and lectures are the sacred text of the
College students. Books, saving only the Professor's own, you may--it is
even expedient to--ignore.

Hill was the son of a Landport cobbler, and had been hooked by a chance
blue paper the authorities had thrown out to the Landport Technical
College. He kept himself in London on his allowance of a guinea a week,
and found that, with proper care, this also covered his clothing
allowance, an occasional waterproof collar, that is; and ink and needles
and cotton, and such-like necessaries for a man about town. This was his
first year and his first session, but the brown old man in Landport had
already got himself detested in many public-houses by boasting of his son,
"the Professor." Hill was a vigorous youngster, with a serene contempt for
the clergy of all denominations, and a fine ambition to reconstruct the
world. He regarded his scholarship as a brilliant opportunity. He had
begun to read at seven, and had read steadily whatever came in his way,
good or bad, since then. His worldly experience had been limited to the
island of Portsea, and acquired chiefly in the wholesale boot factory in
which he had worked by day, after passing the seventh standard of the
Board school. He had a considerable gift of speech, as the College
Debating Society, which met amidst the crushing machines and mine models
in the metallurgical theatre downstairs, already recognised--recognised by
a violent battering of desks whenever he rose. And he was just at that
fine emotional age when life opens at the end of a narrow pass like a
broad valley at one's feet, full of the promise of wonderful discoveries
and tremendous achievements. And his own limitations, save that he knew
that he knew neither Latin nor French, were all unknown to him.

At first his interest had been divided pretty equally between his
biological work at the College and social and theological theorising, an
employment which he took in deadly earnest. Of a night, when the big
museum library was not open, he would sit on the bed of his room in
Chelsea with his coat and a muffler on, and write out the lecture notes
and revise his dissection memoranda, until Thorpe called him out by a
whistle--the landlady objected to open the door to attic visitors--and
then the two would go prowling about the shadowy, shiny, gas-lit streets,
talking, very much in the fashion of the sample just given, of the God
idea, and Righteousness, and Carlyle, and the Reorganisation of Society.
And in the midst of it all, Hill, arguing not only for Thorpe, but for the
casual passer-by, would lose the thread of his argument glancing at some
pretty painted face that looked meaningly at him as he passed. Science and
Righteousness! But once or twice lately there had been signs that a third
interest was creeping into his life, and he had found his attention
wandering from the fate of the mesoblastic somites or the probable meaning
of the blastopore, to the thought of the girl with the brown eyes who sat
at the table before him.

She was a paying student; she descended inconceivable social altitudes to
speak to him. At the thought of the education she must have had, and the
accomplishments she must possess, the soul of Hill became abject within
him. She had spoken to him first over a difficulty about the alisphenoid
of a rabbit's skull, and he had found that, in biology at least, he had no
reason for self-abasement. And from that, after the manner of young people
starting from any starting-point, they got to generalities, and while Hill
attacked her upon the question of socialism--some instinct told him to
spare her a direct assault upon her religion--she was gathering resolution
to undertake what she told herself was his aesthetic education. She was a
year or two older than he, though the thought never occurred to him. The
loan of _News from Nowhere_ was the beginning of a series of cross
loans. Upon some absurd first principle of his, Hill had never "wasted
time" Upon poetry, and it seemed an appalling deficiency to her. One day
in the lunch hour, when she chanced upon him alone in the little museum
where the skeletons were arranged, shamefully eating the bun that
constituted his midday meal, she retreated, and returned to lend him, with
a slightly furtive air, a volume of Browning. He stood sideways towards
her and took the book rather clumsily, because he was holding the bun in
the other hand. And in the retrospect his voice lacked the cheerful
clearness he could have wished.

That occurred after the examination in comparative anatomy, on the day
before the College turned out its students, and was carefully locked up by
the officials, for the Christmas holidays. The excitement of cramming for
the first trial of strength had for a little while dominated Hill, to the
exclusion of his other interests. In the forecasts of the result in which
everyone indulged he was surprised to find that no one regarded him as a
possible competitor for the Harvey Commemoration Medal, of which this and
the two subsequent examinations disposed. It was about this time that
Wedderburn, who so far had lived inconspicuously on the uttermost margin
of Hill's perceptions, began to take on the appearance of an obstacle. By
a mutual agreement, the nocturnal prowlings with Thorpe ceased for the
three weeks before the examination, and his landlady pointed out that she
really could not supply so much lamp oil at the price. He walked to and
fro from the College with little slips of mnemonics in his hand, lists of
crayfish appendages, rabbits' skull-bones, and vertebrate nerves, for
example, and became a positive nuisance to foot passengers in the opposite
direction.

But, by a natural reaction, Poetry and the girl with the brown eyes ruled
the Christmas holiday. The pending results of the examination became such
a secondary consideration that Hill marvelled at his father's excitement.
Even had he wished it, there was no comparative anatomy to read in
Landport, and he was too poor to buy books, but the stock of poets in the
library was extensive, and Hill's attack was magnificently sustained. He
saturated himself with the fluent numbers of Longfellow and Tennyson, and
fortified himself with Shakespeare; found a kindred soul in Pope, and a
master in Shelley, and heard and fled the siren voices of Eliza Cook and
Mrs. Hemans. But he read no more Browning, because he hoped for the loan
of other volumes from Miss Haysman when he returned to London.

He walked from his lodgings to the College with that volume of Browning in
his shiny black bag, and his mind teeming with the finest general
propositions about poetry. Indeed, he framed first this little speech and
then that with which to grace the return. The morning was an exceptionally
pleasant one for London; there was a clear, hard frost and undeniable blue
in the sky, a thin haze softened every outline, and warm shafts of
sunlight struck between the house blocks and turned the sunny side of the
street to amber and gold. In the hall of the College he pulled off his
glove and signed his name with fingers so stiff with cold that the
characteristic dash under the signature he cultivated became a quivering
line. He imagined Miss Haysman about him everywhere. He turned at the
staircase, and there, below, he saw a crowd struggling at the foot of the
notice-board. This, possibly, was the biology list. He forgot Browning and
Miss Haysman for the moment, and joined the scrimmage. And at last, with
his cheek flattened against the sleeve of the man on the step above him,
he read the list--

CLASS I
H. J. Somers Wedderburn
William Hill

and thereafter followed a second class that is outside our present
sympathies. It was characteristic that he did not trouble to look for
Thorpe on the physics list, but backed out of the struggle at once, and in
a curious emotional state between pride over common second-class humanity
and acute disappointment at Wedderburn's success, went on his way
upstairs. At the top, as he was hanging up his coat in the passage, the
zoological demonstrator, a young man from Oxford, who secretly regarded
him as a blatant "mugger" of the very worst type, offered his heartiest
congratulations.

At the laboratory door Hill stopped for a second to get his breath, and
then entered. He looked straight up the laboratory and saw all five girl
students grouped in their places, and Wedderburn, the once retiring
Wedderburn, leaning rather gracefully against the window, playing with the
blind tassel and talking, apparently, to the five of them. Now, Hill could
talk bravely enough and even overbearingly to one girl, and he could have
made a speech to a roomful of girls, but this business of standing at ease
and appreciating, fencing, and returning quick remarks round a group was,
he knew, altogether beyond him. Coming up the staircase his feelings for
Wedderburn had been generous, a certain admiration perhaps, a willingness
to shake his hand conspicuously and heartily as one who had fought but the
first round. But before Christmas Wedderburn had never gone up to that end
of the room to talk. In a flash Hill's mist of vague excitement condensed
abruptly to a vivid dislike of Wedderburn. Possibly his expression
changed. As he came up to his place, Wedderburn nodded carelessly to him,
and the others glanced round. Miss Haysman looked at him and away again,
the faintest touch of her eyes. "I can't agree with you, Mr. Wedderburn,"
she said.

"I must congratulate you on your first-class, Mr. Hill," said the
spectacled girl in green, turning round and beaming at him.

"It's nothing," said Hill, staring at Wedderburn and Miss Haysman talking
together, and eager to hear what they talked about.

"We poor folks in the second class don't think so," said the girl in
spectacles.

What was it Wedderburn was saying? Something about William Morris! Hill
did not answer the girl in spectacles, and the smile died out of his face.
He could not hear, and failed to see how he could "cut in." Confound
Wedderburn! He sat down, opened his bag, hesitated whether to return the
volume of Browning forthwith, in the sight of all, and instead drew out
his new notebooks for the short course in elementary botany that was now
beginning, and which would terminate in February. As he did so, a fat,
heavy man, with a white face and pale grey eyes--Bindon, the professor of
botany, who came up from Kew for January and February--came in by the
lecture theatre door, and passed, rubbing his hands together and smiling,
in silent affability down the laboratory.

* * * * *

In the subsequent six weeks Hill experienced some very rapid and curiously
complex emotional developments. For the most part he had Wedderburn in
focus--a fact that Miss Haysman never suspected. She told Hill (for in the
comparative privacy of the museum she talked a good deal to him of
socialism and Browning and general propositions) that she had met
Wedderburn at the house of some people she knew, and "he's inherited his
cleverness; for his father, you know, is the great eye-specialist."

"_My_ father is a cobbler," said Hill, quite irrelevantly, and
perceived the want of dignity even as he said it. But the gleam of
jealousy did not offend her. She conceived herself the fundamental source
of it. He suffered bitterly from a sense of Wedderburn's unfairness, and a
realisation of his own handicap. Here was this Wedderburn had picked up a
prominent man for a father, and instead of his losing so many marks on the
score of that advantage, it was counted to him for righteousness! And
while Hill had to introduce himself and talk to Miss Haysman clumsily over
mangled guinea-pigs in the laboratory, this Wedderburn, in some backstairs
way, had access to her social altitudes, and could converse in a polished
argot that Hill understood perhaps, but felt incapable of speaking. Not,
of course, that he wanted to. Then it seemed to Hill that for Wedderburn
to come there day after day with cuffs unfrayed, neatly tailored,
precisely barbered, quietly perfect, was in itself an ill-bred, sneering
sort of proceeding. Moreover, it was a stealthy thing for Wedderburn to
behave insignificantly for a space, to mock modesty, to lead Hill to fancy
that he himself was beyond dispute the man of the year, and then suddenly
to dart in front of him, and incontinently to swell up in this fashion. In
addition to these things, Wedderburn displayed an increasing disposition
to join in any conversational grouping that included Miss Haysman, and
would venture, and indeed seek occasion, to pass opinions derogatory to
socialism and atheism. He goaded Hill to incivilities by neat, shallow,
and exceedingly effective personalities about the socialist leaders,
until Hill hated Bernard Shaw's graceful egotisms, William Morris's
limited editions and luxurious wall-papers, and Walter Crane's charmingly
absurd ideal working men, about as much as he hated Wedderburn. The
dissertations in the laboratory, that had been his glory in the previous
term, became a danger, degenerated into inglorious tussels with
Wedderburn, and Hill kept to them only out of an obscure perception that
his honour was involved. In the debating society Hill knew quite clearly
that, to a thunderous accompaniment of banged desks, he could have
pulverised Wedderburn. Only Wedderburn never attended the debating society
to be pulverised, because--nauseous affectation!--he "dined late."

You must not imagine that these things presented themselves in quite such
a crude form to Hill's perception. Hill was a born generaliser. Wedderburn
to him was not so much an individual obstacle as a type, the salient angle
of a class. The economic theories that, after infinite ferment, had shaped
themselves in Hill's mind, became abruptly concrete at the contact. The
world became full of easy-mannered, graceful, gracefully-dressed,
conversationally dexterous, finally shallow Wedderburns, Bishops
Wedderburn, Wedderburn M.P.'s, Professors Wedderburn, Wedderburn
landlords, all with finger-bowl shibboleths and epigrammatic cities of
refuge from a sturdy debater. And everyone ill-clothed or ill-dressed,
from the cobbler to the cab-runner, was a man and a brother, a
fellow-sufferer, to Hill's imagination. So that he became, as it were, a
champion of the fallen and oppressed, albeit to outward seeming only a
self-assertive, ill-mannered young man, and an unsuccessful champion at
that. Again and again a skirmish over the afternoon tea that the girl
students had inaugurated left Hill with flushed cheeks and a tattered
temper, and the debating society noticed a new quality of sarcastic
bitterness in his speeches.

You will understand now how it was necessary, if only in the interests of
humanity, that Hill should demolish Wedderburn in the forthcoming
examination and outshine him in the eyes of Miss Haysman; and you will
perceive, too, how Miss Haysman fell into some common feminine
misconceptions. The Hill-Wedderburn quarrel, for in his unostentatious way
Wedderburn reciprocated Hill's ill-veiled rivalry, became a tribute to her
indefinable charm; she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels
and stumpy pencils. To her confidential friend's secret annoyance, it even
troubled her conscience, for she was a good girl, and painfully aware,
from Ruskin and contemporary fiction, how entirely men's activities are
determined by women's attitudes. And if Hill never by any chance mentioned
the topic of love to her, she only credited him with the finer modesty for
that omission. So the time came on for the second examination, and Hill's
increasing pallor confirmed the general rumour that he was working hard.
In the aerated bread shop near South Kensington Station you would see him,
breaking his bun and sipping his milk, with his eyes intent upon a paper
of closely written notes. In his bedroom there were propositions about
buds and stems round his looking-glass, a diagram to catch his eye, if
soap should chance to spare it, above his washing basin. He missed several
meetings of the debating society, but he found the chance encounters with
Miss Haysman in the spacious ways of the adjacent art museum, or in the
little museum at the top of the College, or in the College corridors, more
frequent and very restful. In particular, they used to meet in a little
gallery full of wrought-iron chests and gates, near the art library, and
there Hill used to talk, under the gentle stimulus of her flattering
attention, of Browning and his personal ambitions. A characteristic she
found remarkable in him was his freedom from avarice. He contemplated
quite calmly the prospect of living all his life on an income below a
hundred pounds a year. But he was determined to be famous, to make,
recognisably in his own proper person, the world a better place to live
in. He took Bradlaugh and John Burns for his leaders and models, poor,
even impecunious, great men. But Miss Haysman thought that such lives were
deficient on the aesthetic side, by which, though she did not know it, she
meant good wall-paper and upholstery, pretty books, tasteful clothes,
concerts, and meals nicely cooked and respectfully served.

At last came the day of the second examination, and the professor of
botany, a fussy, conscientious man, rearranged all the tables in a long
narrow laboratory to prevent copying, and put his demonstrator on a chair
on a table (where he felt, he said, like a Hindoo god), to see all the
cheating, and stuck a notice outside the door, "Door closed," for no
earthly reason that any human being could discover. And all the morning
from ten till one the quill of Wedderburn shrieked defiance at Hill's, and
the quills of the others chased their leaders in a tireless pack, and so
also it was in the afternoon. Wedderburn was a little quieter than usual,
and Hill's face was hot all day, and his overcoat bulged with textbooks
and notebooks against the last moment's revision. And the next day, in the
morning and in the afternoon, was the practical examination, when sections
had to be cut and slides identified. In the morning Hill was depressed
because he knew he had cut a thick section, and in the afternoon came the
mysterious slip.

It was just the kind of thing that the botanical professor was always
doing. Like the income tax, it offered a premium to the cheat. It was a
preparation under the microscope, a little glass slip, held in its place
on the stage of the instrument by light steel clips, and the inscription
set forth that the slip was not to be moved. Each student was to go in
turn to it, sketch it, write in his book of answers what he considered it
to be, and return to his place. Now, to move such a slip is a thing one
can do by a chance movement of the finger, and in a fraction of a second.
The professor's reason for decreeing that the slip should not be moved
depended on the fact that the object he wanted identified was
characteristic of a certain tree stem. In the position in which it was
placed it was a difficult thing to recognise, but once the slip was moved
so as to bring other parts of the preparation into view, its nature was
obvious enough.

Hill came to this, flushed from a contest with staining re-agents, sat
down on the little stool before the microscope, turned the mirror to get
the best light, and then, out of sheer habit, shifted the slips. At once
he remembered the prohibition, and, with an almost continuous motion of
his hands, moved it back, and sat paralysed with astonishment at his
action.

Then, slowly, he turned his head. The professor was out of the room; the
demonstrator sat aloft on his impromptu rostrum, reading the _Q. Jour.
Mi. Sci_.; the rest of the examinees were busy, and with their backs to
him. Should he own up to the accident now? He knew quite clearly what the
thing was. It was a lenticel, a characteristic preparation from the
elder-tree. His eyes roved over his intent fellow-students, and Wedderburn
suddenly glanced over his shoulder at him with a queer expression in his
eyes. The mental excitement that had kept Hill at an abnormal pitch of
vigour these two days gave way to a curious nervous tension. His book of
answers was beside him. He did not write down what the thing was, but with
one eye at the microscope he began making a hasty sketch of it. His mind
was full of this grotesque puzzle in ethics that had suddenly been sprung
upon him. Should he identify it? or should he leave this question
unanswered? In that case Wedderburn would probably come out first in the
second result. How could he tell now whether he might not have identified
the thing without shifting it? It was possible that Wedderburn had failed
to recognise it, of course. Suppose Wedderburn too had shifted the slide?
He looked up at the clock. There were fifteen minutes in which to make up
his mind. He gathered up his book of answers and the coloured pencils he
used in illustrating his replies and walked back to his seat.

He read through his manuscript, and then sat thinking and gnawing his
knuckle. It would look queer now if he owned up. He _must_ beat
Wedderburn. He forgot the examples of those starry gentlemen, John Burns
and Bradlaugh. Besides, he reflected, the glimpse of the rest of the slip
he had had was, after all, quite accidental, forced upon him by chance, a
kind of providential revelation rather than an unfair advantage. It was
not nearly so dishonest to avail himself of that as it was of Broome, who
believed in the efficacy of prayer, to pray daily for a first-class. "Five
minutes more," said the demonstrator, folding up his paper and becoming
observant. Hill watched the clock hands until two minutes remained; then
he opened the book of answers, and, with hot ears and an affectation of
ease, gave his drawing of the lenticel its name.

When the second pass list appeared, the previous positions of Wedderburn
and Hill were reversed, and the spectacled girl in green, who knew the
demonstrator in private life (where he was practically human), said that
in the result of the two examinations taken together Hill had the
advantage of a mark--167 to 166 out of a possible 200. Everyone admired
Hill in a way, though the suspicion of "mugging" clung to him. But Hill
was to find congratulations and Miss Haysman's enhanced opinion of him,
and even the decided decline in the crest of Wedderburn, tainted by an
unhappy memory. He felt a remarkable access of energy at first, and the
note of a democracy marching to triumph returned to his debating-society
speeches; he worked at his comparative anatomy with tremendous zeal and
effect, and he went on with his aesthetic education. But through it all, a
vivid little picture was continually coming before his mind's eye--of a
sneakish person manipulating a slide.

No human being had witnessed the act, and he was cocksure that no higher
power existed to see, it; but for all that it worried him. Memories are
not dead things but alive; they dwindle in disuse, but they harden and
develop in all sorts of queer ways if they are being continually fretted.
Curiously enough, though at the time he perceived clearly that the
shifting was accidental, as the days wore on, his memory became confused
about it, until at last he was not sure--although he assured himself that
he _was_ sure--whether the movement had been absolutely involuntary.
Then it is possible that Hill's dietary was conducive to morbid
conscientiousness; a breakfast frequently eaten in a hurry, a midday bun,
and, at such hours after five as chanced to be convenient, such meat as
his means determined, usually in a chop-house in a back street off the
Brompton Road. Occasionally he treated himself to threepenny or ninepenny
classics, and they usually represented a suppression of potatoes or chops.
It is indisputable that outbreaks of self-abasement and emotional revival
have a distinct relation to periods of scarcity. But apart from this
influence on the feelings, there was in Hill a distinct aversion to
falsity that the blasphemous Landport cobbler had inculcated by strap and
tongue from his earliest years. Of one fact about professed atheists I am
convinced; they may be--they usually are--fools, void of subtlety,
revilers of holy institutions, brutal speakers, and mischievous knaves,
but they lie with difficulty. If it were not so, if they had the faintest
grasp of the idea of compromise, they would simply be liberal churchmen.
And, moreover, this memory poisoned his regard for Miss Haysman. For she
now so evidently preferred him to Wedderburn that he felt sure he cared
for her, and began reciprocating her attentions by timid marks of personal
regard; at one time he even bought a bunch of violets, carried it about in
his pocket, and produced it, with a stumbling explanation, withered and
dead, in the gallery of old iron. It poisoned, too, the denunciation of
capitalist dishonesty that had been one of his life's pleasures. And,
lastly, it poisoned his triumph in Wedderburn. Previously he had been
Wedderburn's superior in his own eyes, and had raged simply at a want of
recognition. Now he began to fret at the darker suspicion of positive
inferiority. He fancied he found justifications for his position in
Browning, but they vanished on analysis. At last--moved, curiously enough,
by exactly the same motive forces that had resulted in his dishonesty--he
went to Professor Bindon, and made a clean breast of the whole affair. As
Hill was a paid student, Professor Bindon did not ask him to sit down, and
he stood before the professor's desk as he made his confession.

"It's a curious story," said Professor Bindon, slowly realising how the
thing reflected on himself, and then letting his anger rise,--"a most
remarkable story. I can't understand your doing it, and I can't understand
this avowal. You're a type of student--Cambridge men would never dream--I
suppose I ought to have thought--why _did_ you cheat?"

"I didn't cheat," said Hill.

"But you have just been telling me you did."

"I thought I explained--"

"Either you cheated or you did not cheat."

"I said my motion was involuntary."

"I am not a metaphysician, I am a servant of science--of fact. You
were told not to move the slip. You did move the slip. If that is not
cheating--"

"If I was a cheat," said Hill, with the note of hysterics in his voice,
"should I come here and tell you?"

"Your repentance, of course, does you credit," said Professor Bindon, "but
it does not alter the original facts."

"No, sir," said Hill, giving in in utter self-abasement.

"Even now you cause an enormous amount of trouble. The examination list
will have to be revised."

"I suppose so, sir."

"Suppose so? Of course it must be revised. And I don't see how I can
conscientiously pass you."

"Not pass me?" said Hill. "Fail me?"

"It's the rule in all examinations. Or where should we be? What else did
you expect? You don't want to shirk the consequences of your own acts?"

"I thought, perhaps----" said Hill. And then, "Fail me? I thought, as I
told you, you would simply deduct the marks given for that slip."

"Impossible!" said Bindon. "Besides, it would still leave you above
Wedderburn. Deduct only the marks! Preposterous! The Departmental
Regulations distinctly say----"

"But it's my own admission, sir."

"The Regulations say nothing whatever of the manner in which the matter
comes to light. They simply provide----"

"It will ruin me. If I fail this examination, they won't renew my
scholarship."

"You should have thought of that before."

"But, sir, consider all my circumstances----"

"I cannot consider anything. Professors in this College are machines. The
Regulations will not even let us recommend our students for appointments.
I am a machine, and you have worked me. I have to do----"

"It's very hard, sir."

"Possibly it is."

"If I am to be failed this examination, I might as well go home at once."

"That is as you think proper." Bindon's voice softened a little; he
perceived he had been unjust, and, provided he did not contradict himself,
he was disposed to amelioration. "As a private person," he said, "I think
this confession of yours goes far to mitigate your offence. But you have
set the machinery in motion, and now it must take its course. I--I am
really sorry you gave way."

A wave of emotion prevented Hill from answering. Suddenly, very vividly,
he saw the heavily-lined face of the old Landport cobbler, his father.
"Good God! What a fool I have been!" he said hotly and abruptly.

"I hope," said Bindon, "that it will be a lesson to you."

But, curiously enough, they were not thinking of quite the same
indiscretion.

There was a pause.

"I would like a day to think, sir, and then I will let you know--about
going home, I mean," said Hill, moving towards the door.

* * * * *

The next day Hill's place was vacant. The spectacled girl in green was, as
usual, first with the news. Wedderburn and Miss Haysman were talking of a
performance of _The Meistersingers_ when she came up to them.

"Have you heard?" she said.

"Heard what?"

"There was cheating in the examination."

"Cheating!" said Wedderburn, with his face suddenly hot. "How?"

"That slide--"

"Moved? Never!"

"It was. That slide that we weren't to move--"

"Nonsense!" said Wedderburn. "Why! How could they find out? Who do they
say--?"

"It was Mr. Hill."

_Hill_!"

"Mr. Hill!"

"Not--surely not the immaculate Hill?" said Wedderburn, recovering.

"I don't believe it," said Miss Haysman. "How do you know?"

"I _didn't_," said the girl in spectacles. "But I know it now for a
fact. Mr. Hill went and confessed to Professor Bindon himself."

"By Jove!" said Wedderburn. "Hill of all people. But I am always inclined
to distrust these philanthropists-on-principle--"

"Are you quite sure?" said Miss Haysman, with a catch in her breath.

"Quite. It's dreadful, isn't it? But, you know, what can you expect? His
father is a cobbler."

Then Miss Haysman astonished the girl in spectacles.

"I don't care. I will not believe it," she said, flushing darkly under her
warm-tinted skin. "I will not believe it until he has told me so himself--
face to face. I would scarcely believe it then," and abruptly she turned
her back on the girl in spectacles, and walked to her own place.

"It's true, all the same," said the girl in spectacles, peering and
smiling at Wedderburn.

But Wedderburn did not answer her. She was indeed one of those people who
seemed destined to make unanswered remarks.

XIX.

THE CRYSTAL EGG.

There was, until a year ago, a little and very grimy-looking shop near
Seven Dials, over which, in weather-worn yellow lettering, the name of "C.
Cave, Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities," was inscribed. The contents
of its window were curiously variegated. They comprised some elephant
tusks and an imperfect set of chessmen, beads and weapons, a box of eyes,
two skulls of tigers and one human, several moth-eaten stuffed monkeys
(one holding a lamp), an old-fashioned cabinet, a fly-blown ostrich egg
or so, some fishing-tackle, and an extraordinarily dirty, empty glass
fish-tank. There was also, at the moment the story begins, a mass of
crystal, worked into the shape of an egg and brilliantly polished. And at
that two people who stood outside the window were looking, one of them a
tall, thin clergyman, the other a black-bearded young man of dusky
complexion and unobtrusive costume. The dusky young man spoke with eager
gesticulation, and seemed anxious for his companion to purchase the
article.

While they were there, Mr. Cave came into his shop, his beard still
wagging with the bread and butter of his tea. When he saw these men and
the object of their regard, his countenance fell. He glanced guiltily over
his shoulder, and softly shut the door. He was a little old man, with pale
face and peculiar watery blue eyes; his hair was a dirty grey, and he wore
a shabby blue frock-coat, an ancient silk hat, and carpet slippers very
much down at heel. He remained watching the two men as they talked. The
clergyman went deep into his trouser pocket, examined a handful of money,
and showed his teeth in an agreeable smile. Mr. Cave seemed still more
depressed when they came into the shop.

The clergyman, without any ceremony, asked the price of the crystal egg.
Mr. Cave glanced nervously towards the door leading into the parlour, and
said five pounds. The clergyman protested that the price was high, to his
companion as well as to Mr. Cave--it was, indeed, very much more than Mr.
Cave had intended to ask when he had stocked the article--and an attempt
at bargaining ensued. Mr. Cave stepped to the shop door, and held it open.
"Five pounds is my price," he said, as though he wished to save himself
the trouble of unprofitable discussion. As he did so, the upper portion of
a woman's face appeared above the blind in the glass upper panel of the
door leading into the parlour, and stared curiously at the two customers.
"Five pounds is my price," said Mr. Cave, with a quiver in his voice.

The swarthy young man had so far remained a spectator, watching Cave
keenly. Now he spoke. "Give him five pounds," he said. The clergyman
glanced at him to see if he were in earnest, and when he looked at Mr.
Cave again, he saw that the latter's face was white. "It's a lot of
money," said the clergyman, and, diving into his pocket, began counting
his resources. He had little more than thirty shillings, and he appealed
to his companion, with whom he seemed to be on terms of considerable
intimacy. This gave Mr. Cave an opportunity of collecting his thoughts,
and he began to explain in an agitated manner that the crystal was not, as
a matter of fact, entirely free for sale. His two customers were naturally
surprised at this, and inquired why he had not thought of that before he
began to bargain. Mr. Cave became confused, but he stuck to his story,
that the crystal was not in the market that afternoon, that a probable
purchaser of it had already appeared. The two, treating this as an attempt
to raise the price still further, made as if they would leave the shop.
But at this point the parlour door opened, and the owner of the dark
fringe and the little eyes appeared.

She was a coarse-featured, corpulent woman, younger and very much larger
than Mr. Cave; she walked heavily, and her face was flushed. "That crystal
_is_ for sale," she said. "And five pounds is a good enough price for

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