The Three Imposters (or The Transmutations)
An Occult Novel of Horror
Arthur Machen, 1894
Part 4: Novel of the Dark Valley
I am the son of a poor but learned clergyman in the West of England,—but I am forgetting, these details are not of special interest. I will briefly state, then, that my father, who was, as I have said, a learned man, had never learnt the specious arts by which the great are flattered, and would never condescend to the despicable pursuit of self-advertisement. Though his fondness for ancient ceremonies and quaint customs, combined with a kindness of heart that was unequalled and a primitive and fervent piety, endeared him to his moor-land parishioners, such were not the steps by which clergy then rose in the Church, and at sixty my father was still incumbent of the little benefice he had accepted in his thirtieth year. The income of the living was barely sufficient to support life in the decencies which are expected of the Anglican parson; and when my father died a few years ago, I, his only child, found myself thrown upon the world with a slender capital of less than a hundred pounds, and all the problem of existence before me. I felt that there was nothing for me to do in the country, and as usually happens in such eases, London drew me like a magnet. One day in August, in the early morning, while the dew still glittered on the turf, and on the high green banks of the lane, a neighbor drove me to the railway station, and I bade good-bye to the land of the broad moors and unearthly battlements of the wild tors. It was six o’clock as we neared London; the faint sickly fume of the brickfields about Acton came in puffs through the open window, and a mist was rising from the ground. Presently the brief view of successive streets, prim and uniform, struck me with a sense of monotony; the hot air seemed to grow hotter; and when we had rolled beneath the dismal and squalid houses, whose dirty and neglected back yards border the line near Paddington, I felt as if I should be stifled in this fainting breath of London. I got a hansom and drove off, and every street increased my gloom; gray houses with blinds drawn down, whole thoroughfares almost desolate, and the foot-passengers who seemed to stagger wearily along rather than walk, all made me feel a sinking at heart. I put up for the night at a small hotel in a street leading from the Strand, where my father had stayed on his few brief visits to town; and when I went out after dinner, the real gayety and bustle of the Strand and Fleet Street could cheer me but little, for in all this great city there was no single human being whom I could claim even as an acquaintance. I will not weary you with the history of the next year, for the adventures of a man who sinks are too trite to be worth recalling. My money did not last me long; I found that I must be neatly dressed, or no one to whom I applied would so much as listen to me; and I must live in a street of decent reputation if I wished to be treated with common civility. I applied for various posts, for which, as I now see, I was completely devoid of qualification; I tried to become a clerk without having the smallest notion of business habits, and I found, to my cost, that a general knowledge of literature and an execrable style of penmanship are far from being looked upon with favor in commercial circles. I had read one of the most charming of the works of a famous novelist of the present day, and I frequented the Fleet Street taverns in the hope of making literary friends, and so getting the introductions which I understood were indispensable in the career of letters. I was disappointed; I once or twice ventured to address gentlemen who were sitting in adjoining boxes, and I was answered, politely indeed, but in a manner that told me my advances were unusual. Pound by pound, my small resources melted; I could no longer think of appearances; I migrated to a shy quarter, and my meals became mere observances. I went out at one and returned to my room at two, but nothing but a milk-cake had occurred in the interval. In short, I became acquainted with misfortune; and as I sat amidst slush and ice on a seat in Hyde Park, munching a piece of bread, I realized the bitterness of poverty, and the feelings of a gentleman reduced to something far below the condition of a vagrant. In spite of all discouragement I did not desist in my efforts to earn a living. I consulted advertisement columns, I kept my eyes open for a chance, I looked in at the windows of stationers’ shops, but all in vain. One evening I was sitting in a Free Library, and I saw an advertisement in one of the papers. It was something like this: “Wanted, by a gentleman a person of literary taste and abilities as secretary and amanuensis. Must not object to travel.” Of course I knew that such an advertisement would have answers by the hundred, and I thought my own chances of securing the post extremely small; however, I applied at the address given, and wrote to Mr. Smith, who was staying at a large hotel at the West End. I must confess that my heart gave a jump when I received a note a couple of days later, asking me to call at the Cosmopole at my earliest convenience. I do not know, sir, what your experiences of life may have been, and so I cannot tell whether you have known such moments. A slight sickness, my heart beating rather more rapidly than usual, a choking in the throat, and a difficulty of utterance; such were my sensations as I walked to the Cosmopole. I had to mention the name twice before the hall porter could understand me, and as I went upstairs my hands were wet. I was a good deal struck by Mr. Smith’s appearance; he looked younger than I did, and there was something mild and hesitating about his expression. He was reading when I came in, and he looked up when I gave my name. “My dear sir,” he said, “I am really delighted to see you. I have read very carefully the letter you were good enough to send me. Am I to understand that this document is in your own handwriting?” He showed me the letter I had written, and I told him I was not so fortunate as to be able to keep a secretary myself. “Then, sir,” he went on, “the post I advertised is at your service. You have no objection to travel, I presume?” As you may imagine, I closed pretty eagerly with the offer he made, and thus I entered the service of Mr. Smith. For the first few weeks I had no special duties; I had received a quarter’s salary, and a handsome allowance was made me in lieu of board and lodging. One morning, however, when I called at the hotel according to instructions, my master informed me that I must hold myself in readiness for a sea-voyage, and, to spare unnecessary detail, in the course of a fortnight we had landed at New York. Mr. Smith told me that he was engaged on a work of a special nature, in the compilation of which some peculiar researches had to be made; in short, I was given to understand that we were to travel to the far West.
After about a week had been spent in New York we took our seats in the cars, and began a journey tedious beyond all conception. Day after day, and night after night, the great train rolled on, threading its way through cities the very names of which were strange to me, passing at slow speed over perilous viaducts, skirting mountain ranges and pine forests, and plunging into dense tracts of wood, where mile after mile and hour after hour the same monotonous growth of brushwood met the eye, and all along the continual clatter and rattle of the wheels upon the ill-laid lines made it difficult to hear the voices of our fellow-passengers. We were a heterogeneous and ever-changing company; often I woke up in the dead of night with the sudden grinding jar of the brakes, and looking out found that we had stopped in the shabby street of some frame-built town, lighted chiefly by the flaring windows of the saloon. A few rough-looking fellows would often come out to stare at the cars, and sometimes passengers got down, and sometimes there was a party of two or three waiting on the wooden sidewalk to get on board. Many of the passengers were English; humble households torn up from the moorings of a thousand years, and bound for some problematical paradise in the alkali desert or the Rockies. I heard the men talking to one another of the great profits to be made on the virgin soil of America, and two or three, who were mechanics, expatiated on the wonderful wages given to skilled labor on the railways and in the factories of the States. This talk usually fell dead after a few minutes, and I could see a sickness and dismay in the faces of these men as they looked at the ugly brush or at the desolate expanse of the prairie, dotted here and there with frame-houses, devoid of garden, or flowers or trees, standing all alone in what might have been a great gray sea frozen into stillness. Day after day the waving sky line, and the desolation of a land without form or color or variety, appalled the hearts of such of us as were Englishmen, and once in the night as I lay awake I heard a woman weeping and sobbing, and asking what she had done to come to such a place. Her husband tried to comfort her in the broad speech of Gloucestershire, telling her the ground was so rich that one had only to plough it up and it would grow sunflowers of itself, but she cried for her mother and their old cottage and the beehives, like a little child. The sadness of it all overwhelmed me, and I had no heart to think of other matters; the question of what Mr. Smith could have to do in such a country, and of what manner of literary research could be carried on in the wilderness, hardly troubled me. Now and again my situation struck me as peculiar; I had been engaged as a literary assistant at a handsome salary, and yet my master was still almost a stranger to me; sometimes he would come to where I was sitting in the cars and make a few banal remarks about the country, but for the most part of the journey he sat by himself, not speaking to any one, and so far as I could judge, deep in his thoughts. It was I think on the fifth day from New York when I received, the intimation that we should shortly leave the cars; I had been watching some distant mountains which rose wild and savage before us, and I was wondering if there were human beings so unhappy as to speak of home in connection with those piles of lumbered rock, when Mr. Smith touched me lightly on the shoulder. “You will be glad to be done with, the cars, I have no doubt, Mr. Wilkins,” he said. “You were looking at the mountains, I think? Well, I hope we shall be there tonight. The train stops at Reading, and I dare say we shall manage to find our way.”
A few hours later the brakeman brought the tram to a standstill at the Reading depot and we got out. I noticed that the town, though of course built almost entirely of frame-houses, was larger and busier than any we had passed for the last two days. The depot was crowded, and as the bell and whistle sounded, I saw that a number of persons were preparing to leave the cars, while an even greater number were waiting to get on board. Besides the passengers, there was a pretty dense crowd of people, some of whom had come to meet or to see off their friends and relatives, while others were mere loafers. Several of our English fellow passengers got down at Reading, but the confusion was so great that they were lost to my sight almost immediately. Mr. Smith beckoned to me to follow him, and we were soon in the thick of the mass; and the continual ringing of bells, the hubbub of voices, the shrieking of whistles, and the hiss of escaping steam, confused my senses, and I wondered dimly as I struggled after my employer, where we were going, and how we should be able to find our way through an unknown country. Mr. Smith had put on a wide-brimmed hat, which he had sloped over his eyes, and as all the men wore hats of the same pattern, it was with some difficulty that I distinguished him in the crowd. We got free at last, and he struck down a side street, and made one or two sharp turns to right and left. It was getting dusk, and we seemed to be passing through a shy portion of the town, there were few people about in the ill-lighted streets, and these few were men of the most unprepossessing pattern. Suddenly we stopped before a corner house, a man was standing at the door, apparently on the look-out for someone, and I noticed that he and Smith gave sharp glances one to the other.
“From New York City, I expect, mister?”
“From New York!”
“All right; they’re ready, and you can have ’em when you choose. I know my orders, you see, and I mean to run this business through.”
“Very well, Mr. Evans, that is what we want. Our money is good, you know. Bring them round.”
I had stood silent, listening to this dialogue, and wondering what it meant. Smith began to walk impatiently up and down the street, and the man Evans was still standing at his door. He had given a sharp whistle, and I saw him looking me over in a quiet leisurely way, as if to make sure of my face for another time. I was thinking what all this could mean, when an ugly, slouching lad came up a side passage, leading two raw-boned horses.
“Get up, Mr. Wilkins, and be quick about it,” said Smith. “We ought to be on our way.”
We rode off together into the gathering darkness, and before long I looked back and saw the far plain behind us, with the lights of the town glimmering faintly; and in front rose the mountains. Smith guided his horse on the rough track as surely as if he had been riding along Piccadilly, and I followed him as well as I could. I was weary and exhausted, and scarcely took note of anything; I felt that the track was a gradual ascent, and here and there I saw great boulders by the road. The ride made but little impression on me; I have a faint recollection of passing through a dense black pine forest, where our horses had to pick their way among the rocks, and I remember the peculiar effect of the rarefied air as we kept still mounting higher and higher. I think I must have been half asleep for the latter half of the ride, and it was with a shock that I heard Smith saying—
“Here we are, Wilkins. This is Blue-Rock Park. You will enjoy the view tomorrow. Tonight we will have something to eat, and then go to bed.”
A man came out of a rough-looking house and took the horses, and we found some fried steak and coarse whiskey awaiting us inside. I had come to a strange place. There were three rooms,—the room in which we had supper, Smith’s room and my own. The deaf old man who did the work slept in a sort of shed, and when I woke up the next morning and walked out I found that the house stood in a sort of hollow amongst the mountains; the clumps of pines and some enormous bluish-gray rocks that stood here and there between the trees had given the place the name of Blue-Rock Park. On every side the snow-covered mountains surrounded us, the breath of the air was as wine, and when I climbed the slope and looked down, I could see that, so far as any human fellowship was concerned I might as well have been wrecked on some small island in mid-Pacific. The only trace of man I could see was the rough log-house where I had slept, and in my ignorance I did not know that there were similar houses within comparatively easy distance, as distance is reckoned in the Rockies. But at the moment, the utter, dreadful loneliness rushed upon me, and the thought of the great plain and the great sea that parted me from the world I knew, caught me by the throat, and I wondered if I should die there in that mountain hollow. It was a terrible instant, and I have not yet forgotten it. Of course I managed to conquer my horror; I said I should be all the stronger for the experience, and I made up my mind to make the best of everything. It was a rough life enough, and rough enough board and lodging. I was left entirely to myself. Smith I scarcely ever saw, nor did I know when he was in the house. I have often thought he was far away, and have been surprised to see him walking out of his room, locking the door behind him and putting the key in his pocket; and on several occasions when I fancied he was busy in his room, I have seen him come in with his boots covered with dust and dirt. So far as work went I enjoyed a complete sinecure; I had nothing to do but to walk about the valley, to eat, and to sleep. With one thing and another I grew accustomed, to the life, and managed to make myself pretty comfortable, and by degrees I began to venture farther away from the house, and to explore the country. One day I had contrived to get into a neighboring valley, and suddenly I came upon a group of men sawing timber. I went up to them, hoping that perhaps some of them might be Englishmen; at all events they were human beings, and I should hear articulate speech, for the old man I have mentioned, besides being half blind and stone deaf, was wholly dumb so far as I was concerned. I was prepared to be welcomed in a rough and ready fashion, without much, of the forms of politeness, but the grim glances and the short gruff answers I received astonished me. I saw the men glancing oddly at each other, and one of them who had stopped work began fingering a gun, and I was obliged to return on my path uttering curses on the fate which had brought me into a land where men were more brutish than the very brutes. The solitude of the life began to oppress me as with a nightmare, and a few days later I determined to walk to a kind of station some miles distant, where a rough inn was kept for the accommodation of hunters and tourists. English gentlemen occasionally stopped there for the night, and I thought I might perhaps fall in with someone of better manners than the inhabitants of the country. I found as I had expected a group of men lounging about the door of the log-house that served as a hotel, and as I came nearer I could see that heads were put together and looks interchanged, and when I walked up the six or seven trappers stared at me in stony ferocity, and with something of the disgust that one eyes a loathsome and venomous snake. I felt that I could bear it no longer, and I called out:—
“Is there such a thing as an Englishman here, or any one with a little civilization?”
One of the men put his hand to his belt, but his neighbor checked him and answered me.
“You’ll find we’ve got some of the resources of civilization before very long, mister, and I expect you’ll not fancy them extremely. But anyway, there’s an Englishman tarrying here, and I’ve no doubt he’ll be glad to see you. There you are, that’s Mr. D’Aubernoun.”
A young man, dressed like an English country squire, came and stood at the door, and looked at me. One of the men pointed to me and said:—
“That’s the individual we were talking about last night. Thought you might like to have a look at him, squire, and here he is.”
The young fellow’s good-natured English face clouded over, and he glanced sternly at me, and turned away with a gesture of contempt and aversion.
“Sir,” I cried, “I do not know what I have done to be treated in this manner. You are my fellow-countryman, and I expected some courtesy.”
He gave me a black look and made as if he would go in, but he changed his mind, and faced me.
“You are rather imprudent, I think, to behave in this manner. You must be counting on a forbearance which cannot last very long; which may last a very short time, indeed. And let me tell you this, sir, you may call yourself an Englishman and drag the name of England through the dirt, but you need not count on any English influence to help you. If I were you, I would not stay here much longer.”
He went into the inn, and the men quietly watched my face, as I stood there, wondering whether I was going mad. The woman of the house came out and stared at me as if I were a wild beast or a savage, and I turned to her, and spoke quietly.
“I am very hungry and thirsty, I have walked a long way. I have plenty of money. Will you give me something to eat and drink?”
“No, I won’t,” she said. “You had better quit this.”
I crawled home like a wounded beast, and lay down on my bed. It was all a hopeless puzzle to me. I knew nothing but rage and shame and terror, and I suffered little more when I passed by a house in an adjacent valley, and some children who were playing outside ran from me shrieking. I was forced to walk to find some occupation. I should have died if I had sat down quietly in Blue Rock Park and looked all day at the mountains; but wherever I saw a human being I saw the same glance of hatred and aversion, and once as I was crossing a thick brake I heard a shot, and the venomous hiss of a bullet close to my ear.
One day I heard a conversation which astounded me; I was sitting behind a rock resting, and two men came along the track and halted. One of them had got his feet entangled in some wild vines, and swore fiercely, but the other laughed, and said they were useful things sometimes.
“What the hell do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing much. But they’re uncommon tough, these here vines, and sometimes rope is skerse and dear.”
The man who had sworn chuckled at this, and I heard them sit down and light their pipes.
“Have you seen him lately?” asked the humorist.
“I sighted him the other day, but the darned bullet went high. He’s got his master’s luck, I expect, sir, but it can’t last much longer. You heard about him going to Jinks’s and trying his brass, but the young Britisher downed him pretty considerable, I can tell you.”
“What the devil is the meaning of it?”
“I don’t know, but I believe it’ll have to be finished, and done in the old style, too. You know how they fix the niggers?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve seen a little of that. A couple of gallons of kerosene’ll cost a dollar at Brown’s store, but I should say it’s cheap anyway.”
They moved off after this, and I lay still behind the rock, the sweat pouring down my face. I was so sick that I could barely stand, and I walked home as slowly as an old man, leaning on my stick. I knew that the two men had been talking about me, and I knew that some terrible death was in store for me. That night I could not sleep. I tossed on the rough bed and tortured myself to find out the meaning of it all. At last in the very dead of night I rose from the bed, and put on my clothes, and went out. I did not care where I went, but I felt that I must walk till I had tired myself out. It was a clear moonlight night, and in a couple of hours I found I was approaching a place of dismal reputation in the mountains, a deep cleft in the rocks, known as Black Gulf Cañon. Many years before, an unfortunate party of Englishmen and Englishwomen had camped here and had been surrounded by Indians. They were captured, outraged, and put to death with almost inconceivable tortures, and the roughest of the trappers or woodsmen gave the cañon a wide berth even in the day-time. As I crushed through the dense brushwood which grew above the cañon, I heard voices, and wondering who could be in such a place at such a time, I went on, walking more carefully and making as little noise as possible. There was a great tree growing on the very edge of the rocks, and I lay down and looked out from behind the trunk. Black Gulf Cañon was below me, the moonlight shining bright into its very depths from midheaven, and casting shadows as black as death from the pointed rock, and all the sheer rock on the other side, overhanging the cañon, was in darkness. At intervals a light veil obscured the moonlight, as a filmy cloud fleeted across the moon; and a bitter wind blew shrill across the gulf. I looked down as I have said, and saw twenty men standing in a semicircle round a rock; I counted them one by one, and knew most of them. They were the very vilest of the vile, more vile than any den in London could show, and there was murder and worse than murder on the heads of not a few. Facing them and me stood Mr. Smith with the rock before him, and on the rock was a great pair of scales, such, as are used in the stores. I heard his voice ringing down the cañon as I lay beside the tree, and my heart turned cold as I heard it.
“Life for gold,” he cried, “a life for gold. The blood and the life of an enemy for every pound of gold.”
A man stepped out and raised one hand, and with the other flung a bright lump of something into the pan of the scales, which clanged down, and Smith muttered something in his ear. Then he cried again:—
“Blood for gold; for a pound of gold, the life of an enemy. For every pound of gold upon the scales, a life.”
One by one the men came forward, each lifting up his right hand; and the gold was weighed in the scales, and each time Smith leaned forward and spoke to each man in his ear. Then he cried again:—
“Desire and lust, for gold on the scales. For every pound of gold, enjoyment of desire.”
I saw the same thing happen as before; the uplifted hand, and the metal weighed, and the mouth whispering, and black passion on every face.
Then, one by one, I saw the men again step up to Smith. A muttered conversation seemed to take place; I could see that Smith was explaining and directing, and I noticed that he gesticulated a little as one who points out the way, and once or twice he moved his hands quickly as if he would show that the path was clear and could not be missed. I kept my eyes so intently on his figure that I noted little else, and at last it was with a start that I realized that the cañon was empty. A moment before I thought I had seen the group of villainous faces, and the two standing, a little apart by the rock; I had looked down a moment, and when I glanced again into the cañon there was no one there. In dumb terror I made my way home, and I fell asleep in an instant from exhaustion. No doubt I should have slept on for many hours, but when I woke up, the sun was only rising, and the light shone in on my bed. I had started up from sleep with the sensation of having received a violent shock, and as I looked in confusion about me I saw to my amazement that there were three men in the room. One of them had his hand on my shoulder and spoke to me.
“Come, mister, wake up. Your time’s up now, I reckon, and the boys are waiting for you outside, and they’re in a big hurry. Come on; you can put on your clothes, it’s kind of chilly this morning.”
I saw the other two men smiling sourly at each other, but I understood nothing. I simply pulled on my clothes, and said I was ready.
“All right, come on then. You go first, Nichols, and Jim and I will give the gentleman an arm.”
They took me out into the sunlight, and then I understood the meaning of a dull murmur that had vaguely perplexed me while I was dressing. There were about two hundred men waiting outside, and some women too, and when they saw me there was a low muttering growl. I did not know what I had done, but that noise made my heart beat and the sweat come out on my face. I saw confusedly, as through a veil, the tumult and tossing of the crowd, discordant voices were speaking, and amongst all those faces there was not one glance of mercy, but a fury of lust that I did not understand. I found myself presently walking in a sort of procession up the slope of the valley, and on every side of me there were men with revolvers in their hands. Now and then a voice struck me, and I heard words and sentences of which I could form no connected story. But I understood that there was one sentence of execration; I heard scraps of stories that seemed strange and improbable. Someone was talking of men, lured by cunning devices from their homes and murdered with hideous tortures, found writhing like wounded snakes in dark and lonely places, only crying for someone to stab them to the heart, and so end their torments; and I heard another voice speaking of innocent girls who had vanished for a day or two, and then had come back and died, blushing red with shame even in the agonies of death. I wondered what it all meant, and what was to happen, but I was so weary that I walked on in a dream, scarcely longing for anything but sleep. At last we stopped. We had reached the summit of the hill, overlooking Blue Rock Valley, and I saw that I was standing beneath a clump of trees where I had often sat. I was in the midst of a ring of armed men, and I saw that two or three men were very busy with piles of wood, while others were fingering a rope. Then there was a stir in the crowd, and a man was pushed forward. His hands and feet were tightly bound with cord, and though his face was unutterably villainous I pitied him for the agony that worked his features and twisted his lips. I knew him; he was amongst those that had gathered round Smith in Black Gulf Cañon. In an instant he was unbound, and stripped naked; and borne beneath one of the trees, and his neck encircled by a noose that went around the trunk. A hoarse voice gave some kind of order; there was a rush of feet, and the rope tightened; and there before me I saw the blackened face and the writhing limbs and the shameful agony of death. One after another, half a dozen men, all of whom I had seen in the cañon the night before, were strangled before me, and their bodies were flung forth on the ground. Then there was a pause, and the man who had roused me a short while before, came up to me and said:—
“Now, mister, it’s your turn. We give you five minutes to cast up your accounts, and when that’s clocked, by the living God we will burn you alive at that tree.”
It was then I awoke and understood. I cried out:—
“Why, what have I done? Why should you hurt me? I am a harmless man, I never did you any wrong.” I covered my face with my hands; it seemed so pitiful, and it was such a terrible death.
“What have I done?” I cried again. “You must take me for some other man. You cannot know me.”
“You black-hearted devil,” said the man at my side, “we know you well enough. There’s not a man within thirty miles of this that won’t curse Jack Smith when you are burning in hell.”
“My name is not Smith,” I said, with some hope left in me. “My name is Wilkins. I was Mr. Smith’s secretary, but I knew nothing of him.”
“Hark at the black liar,” said the man. “Secretary be damned! You were clever enough, I dare say, to slink out at night, and keep your face in the dark, but we’ve tracked you out at last. But your time’s up. Come along.”
I was dragged to the tree and bound to it with chains, and I saw the piles of wood heaped all about me, and shut my eyes. Then I felt myself drenched all over with some liquid, and looked again, and a woman grinned at me. She had just emptied a great can of petroleum over me and over the wood. A voice shouted, “Fire away,” and I fainted and knew nothing more.
When I opened my eyes I was lying on a bed in a bare comfortless room. A doctor was holding some strong salts to my nostrils, and a gentleman standing by the bed, whom I afterwards found to be the sheriff, addressed me:—
“Say, mister,” he began, “you’ve had an uncommon narrow squeak for it. The boys were just about lighting up when I came along with the posse, and I had as much as I could do to bring you off, I can tell you. And, mind you, I don’t blame, them; they had made up their minds, you see, that you were the head of the Black Gulf gang, and at first nothing I could say would persuade them you weren’t Jack Smith. Luckily, a man from here named Evans, that came along with us, allowed he had seen you with Jack Smith, and that you were yourself. So we brought you along and jailed you, but you can go if you like, when you’re through with this faint turn.”
I got on the cars the next day, and in three weeks I was in London; again almost penniless. But from that time my fortune seemed to change. I made influential friends in all directions; bank directors courted my company, and editors positively flung themselves into my arms. I had only to choose my career, and after a while I determined that I was meant by nature for a life of comparative leisure. With an ease that seemed almost ridiculous I obtained a well-paid position in connection with a prosperous political club. I have charming chambers in a central neighborhood close to the parks; the club chef exerts himself when I lunch or dine, and the rarest vintages in the cellar are always at my disposal. Yet, since my return to London, I have never known a day’s security or peace; I tremble when I awake lest Smith should be standing at my bed, and every step I take seems to bring me nearer to the edge of the precipice. Smith, I knew, had escaped free from the raid of the vigilantes, and I grew faint at the thought that he would in all probability return to London, and that suddenly and unprepared I should meet him face to face. Every morning as I left my house, I would peer up and down the street, expecting to see that dreaded figure awaiting me; I have delayed at street corners, my heart in my mouth, sickening at the thought that a few quick steps might bring us together; I could not bear to frequent the theatres or music halls, lest by some bizarre chance he should prove to be my neighbor. Sometimes, I have been forced, against my will, to walk out at night, and then in silent squares the shadows have made me shudder, and in the medley of meetings in the crowded thoroughfares, I have said to myself, “It must come sooner or later; he will surely return to town, and I shall see him when I feel most secure.” I scanned the newspapers for hint or intimation of approaching danger, and no small type nor report of trivial interest was allowed to pass unread. Especially I read and re-read the advertisement columns, but without result. Months passed by and I was undisturbed till, though I felt far from safe, I no longer suffered from the intolerable oppression of instant and ever present terror. This afternoon as I was walking quietly along Oxford Street, I raised my eyes, and looked across the road, and then at last I saw the man who had so long haunted my thoughts.
Mr. Wilkins finished his wine, and leaned back in his chair, looking sadly at Dyson; and then, as if a thought struck him, fished out of an inner pocket a leather letter case, and handed a newspaper cutting across the table.
Dyson glanced closely at the slip, and saw that it had been extracted from the columns of an evening paper. It ran as follows:—
A Dalziel telegram from Reading (Colorado) states that advices received there from Blue Bock Park report a frightful instance of popular vengeance. For some time the neighborhood has been terrorized by the crimes of a gang of desperadoes, who, under the cover of a carefully planned organization, have perpetrated the most infamous cruelties on men and women. A Vigilance Committee was formed, and it was found that the leader of the gang was a person named Smith, living in Blue Rock Park. Action was taken, and six of the worst in the band were summarily strangled in the presence of two or three hundred men and women. Smith is said to have escaped.
“This is a terrible story,” said Dyson; “I can well believe that your days and nights are haunted by such fearful scenes as you have described. But surely you have no need to fear Smith? He has much, more cause to fear you. Consider, you have only to lay your information before the police, and a warrant would be immediately issued for his arrest. Besides, you will, I am sure, excuse me for what I am going to say.”
“My dear sir,” said Mr. Wilkins, “I hope you will speak to me with perfect freedom.”
“Well, then, I must confess that my impression was that you were rather disappointed at not being able to stop the man before he drove off. I thought you seemed annoyed that you could not get across the street.”
“Sir, I did not know what I was about. I caught sight of the man, but it was only for a moment, and the agony you witnessed was the agony of suspense. I was not perfectly certain of the face; and the horrible thought that Smith was again in London overwhelmed me. I shuddered at the idea of this incarnate fiend, whose soul is black with shocking crimes, mingling free and unobserved amongst the harmless crowds, meditating perhaps a new and more fearful cycle of infamies. I tell you, sir, that an awful being stalks through the streets, a being before whom the sunlight itself should blacken, and the summer air grow chill and dank. Such thoughts as these rushed upon me with the force of a whirlwind; I lost my senses.”
“I see. I partly understand your feelings, but I would impress on you that you have nothing really to fear. Depend upon it, Smith will not molest you in any way. You must remember he himself has had a warning; and indeed from the brief glance I had of him, he seemed to me to be a frightened-looking man. However, I see it is getting late, and if you will excuse me, Mr. Wilkins, I think I will be going. I dare say we shall often meet here.”
Dyson walked off smartly, pondering the strange story chance had brought him, and finding on cool reflection that there was something a little strange in Mr. Wilkins’s manner, for which not even so weird a catalogue of experiences could altogether account.
Stay tuned for Part 5…